Smart, Nice, Accomplished, Aware

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Appraising an individual or a program has always been difficult. We are a nation of numbers and like to use hard cold facts to determine the worth or success of the people and things that we judge. Businesses consider profits, time spent without accidents or complaints. Schools look at the test scores of students and performance on a number of measurable factors such as attendance, quality of lesson plans. Universities look at grades, class rank, scores on exams, extra curricular activities and creativity of essays. Still we have yet to find a system for determining the worth of people in various situations that is a hundred percent accurate because in reality each of us is incredibly complex. We might form close approximations of the value of any one person, but we will invariably find flaws in the systems that we use unless we are very careful.

I use the world of education as an example because it is the environment that I know best. It might be thought that a teacher whose students score particularly high on a standardized test must surely be a better educator than someone whose results appear to be mediocre. The hidden flaw to this kind of thinking lies in knowing where these students ranked before the respective teachers worked with them. It might be that the youngsters whose outcomes appeared to be so spectacular had actually done better the previous school year while those with mediocre grades may have improved by a quantum leap. The question then becomes which teacher is actually the better of the two.

The same difficulties occur when attempting to compare students who are applying as undergraduates to universities. It has long been known that kids who attend high schools like Bellaire or Clear Lake in the Houston area have an exceedingly difficult time landing in the top ten percent of their graduating classes because so many of their classmates are making all A’s. These schools are not easy, quite the contrary, but the students are intensely dedicated and bright. On the other hand there are campuses with terrible reputations where a reasonably hard working pupil will easily earn a top standing in the class.

We also know that there are some individuals who panic over high stakes standardized tests. Their scores rarely align with the capabilities that they exhibit day in and day out. Others whose study habits may be marginal at best have a talent for blowing the lid off of the one and done assessments. Comparing the two very different types of students sometimes requires an unproven leap of faith.

The question becomes how to determine who is most deserving of a job or a slot in a particular program. How can we be fair and still come close to making the right decisions? What criteria are useful, and what may mislead us? It is a conundrum that plagues virtually every aspect of our society and we have yet to create a foolproof methodology that takes all of the necessary factors into account. Our attempts to be fair and objective invariably end up unwittingly relying a great deal of subjective reasoning.

Recently I was somewhat amused and befuddled to learn that the Tucks School of Business at Dartmouth University has made a few changes to its admissions requirements for the MBA program. In an effort to find well rounded and diverse individuals they have decided to search for four particular qualities in their applicants. They have proclaimed that they intend to find students who are smart, nice, accomplished and aware.

Being smart means that the prospective students must have good grades and test scores that reflect written and verbal communications skills along with a good sense of numbers. Nonetheless the school emphasizes that potential candidates should be humble as well, a profoundly important life skill, but one that is ridiculously difficult to determine either in an interview or through references. Who among us chooses references that we do not believe will be rock solid in our favor? How many of us assume a kind of persona during interviews that does not adequately demonstrate who we really are?

Accomplishments appear to be relatively easy to determine. It is unlikely that someone will continually advance in a workplace if they possess many negative habits and yet there is always a possibility that accolades may not be as well deserved as they may appear. Additionally a listing of different activities gives little insight into how well those things were actually done. We all know someone who joins a number of groups but has little dedication to any of them.

In looking for students who are aware Tuck notes that reflection is mandatory. They insist that students be able to think about their character, their past and their future. This is a noble goal indeed. Still I wonder if a well spoken individual gregarious enough to share inner thoughts is in actuality more aware than someone who is circumspect but a bit more reserved with regard to revealing personal insights. It seems that even with essays, reviews and a psychological assessment it may be difficult to know who is aware and who is not. I’ve seen many a person who is masterful at blowing smoke only to later be viewed as a fraud, and others who rose to challenges with a quiet strength that surprised everyone.

Finally there is the matter of being nice. Tuck states that this is the quintessential quality that they want their students to possess. By nice they mean someone who celebrates and supports the success of others, is willing to ask for help, shares and respects different opinions, is both strong and vulnerable. They want students who possess a set of moral principles to which they hold fast even as they are being challenged.

While I find the desire to find such nice people laudable I also wonder how in the world  it is even possible to determine such a thing. The word nice is perhaps one of the most subjective ideas that there may be. What does it actually mean to be nice? That definition varies greatly from person to person, situation to situation. Nice often means having to be very tough. Sometimes it requires being firm rather than flexible. It is an ever changing concept that is far too nebulous to use as a measurement for determining who earns a slot at in a prestigious graduate program.

The university insists that they possess sound methodologies for determining which prospective students possess each of the four aspects that they have outlined. With respect to niceness they appear to believe that student essays and reference instruments will reveal the presence of nice qualities. I beg to differ. The concept itself is far too ill defined to be worthy of such an important decision making process. It’s bound to result in exaggerations and even falsehoods from those seeking admission. It is on its face a very unreliable albeit worthy quality to use when assessing strangers.

I often think back to students that I have known, some of whom appeared to be fabulous on paper and others whose performances, accomplishments and character seemed lackluster at best. The lesser candidates often nonetheless possessed extraordinary capabilities that might never be noted in today’s world of electronic and highly  specific measurements. I think particularly of a remarkable student who by all appearances was almost subpar. When all of the measurements failed to note was that he was literally financially and emotionally responsible for his family from the time of middle school. He attended his classes during the day but worked long hours every single night, rarely having the time to complete homework assignments. He often missed days at school to drive his disabled brother to appointments with doctors. His time was filled with major responsibilities of which he never spoke. Somehow he still managed to pass all of his classes and complete all requirements for graduation from high school. By the time he walked across the stage he had been working forty hour weeks for years. He had no extra curricular activities to list nor did he seem to have completed any community service, and yet he was already operating as a very responsible adult while his classmates were still immature by his standards. Not even a carefully crafted and objective admissions packet would have indicated that he was a worthy candidate for a prestigious program and so he instead chose a college with open enrollment and with sheer will eventually earned a degree while still being the breadwinner for his family.

I wish the Tuck School of Business well, but something tells me that their admissions process is still as fraught with problems as most of our systems are. There are just so many variables about humans that we have yet to quantify.