Higher Education Admissions
Choosing a Discipline
When applying to a university or college, the first step is choosing a discipline. This is not a simple task: our abilities and preferences must be taken into account. Which subjects engage our curiosity, interest and passion? What professions are aligned with our values? In addition, we have to consider the economic and social aspects of our choice. What kinds of jobs will be available after graduation? How much will they pay? How will others perceive us? How will we perceive ourselves, and so forth.
The choosing of a discipline must be taken seriously. It is a good idea to gather information about the fields being considered, consult with people whose opinions we value and talk to other students or professionals. It is also worth considering the location of the relevant educational institutions, as well as their reputations and admissions requirements.
Help in choosing a discipline can be obtained at the professional and academic advice centers of the various academic institutions, as well as at certain private centers. The free online resource Kivunim Leatid can also be useful. It uses scientific methods to assist those who are having trouble choosing a discipline.
It is important to realize that being accepted to your department of choice is just the first step. People often choose to change their discipline at some point during their studies. Others choose to pursue an advanced degree in a different field than that of their undergraduate degree. A survey conducted in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries shows that 40% of workers are not employed in the field in which they studied as undergraduates.
Why Universities Need Admissions Criteria
In a perfect world people could study whatever they wished, wherever they liked, perhaps even for free. But this is not realistic. First, there are a limited number of places available in institutions of higher education. In some departments the number of candidates is significantly higher than the number of spaces available. Five to ten candidates compete for each space in fields that are considered prestigious, such as medicine, engineering, computer science, communications and psychology. It is generally easier to be accepted to departments where the number of available places exceeds the demand for them.
The number of spaces in each department is limited by a variety of constraints, including the requirements of the Higher Education Council (Malag). These requirements arise from the need to regulate the job market and to take into account the number of positions in a certain field, as well as the budgetary and logistical capabilities of the academic institutions, such as the number of lecturers employed and laboratory and classroom capacity. Because they cannot accept all candidates, the institutions prefer to accept those who have better chances of academic success. To this end, many departments establish admissions criteria to ensure that the knowledge and abilities of those admitted will enable them to successfully manage the demands of their study program.
This is accomplished by selecting which tools will be used to screen the candidates. It is important to understand that as long as the demand for places exceeds the supply, switching to different admissions tools will not change the number of candidates accepted. There will always be applicants – among them, highly competent people – who are not accepted to their department of choice because of insufficient space. The choice of this or that admissions tool will not change the number of students accepted, though it may affect which students are accepted.
Higher Education Admissions
Higher Education Admissions Criteria
Admissions criteria are determined by the values espoused by a society or an institution. Two main approaches can be distinguished. The first is based on the principle of absolutely equal opportunity. According to this view, candidates for higher education should be admitted by means of a blind lottery so that everyone has an equal chance of being accepted. This method ensures that the student population is representative of the full spectrum of applicants. The main problem with this approach is that random admission is likely to let candidates with insufficient academic abilities enter the institutions. This may compromise the academic level, increase dropout rates, and cause loss of time and money for both the students who do not make it to the second year and the state, which has subsidized their studies.
The second approach, commonly used in most OECD countries, including Israel, is based on the principle of meritocracy. The aim is to further excellence in society by selecting the most talented candidates on the basis of parameters that predict their academic success. Because there are multiple factors that could affect this success, more than one predictive tool must be used. Moreover, screening tools are needed that will predict academic success as accurately as possible, at the lowest possible personal and financial cost. In other words, a balance between the cost and benefit of admissions procedures must be established.
The meritocratic approach prevails in most OECD countries. Among the tools and criteria they use for higher education admissions are: high school grade average, high school diploma grades, knowledge and achievement tests, ability tests (like the Psychometric test), institution-specific admissions tests, personal essays, recommendation letters, interviews and personal background information.
For a comprehensive overview see here.
Admissions to Israeli Institutions of Higher Education
Most of the institutions of higher education in Israel admit candidates based on a combination of high school matriculation grade average (Bagrut) and Psychometric test score. The two are complementary, with the pros of each one counteracting the cons of the other.
The main advantage of using Bagrut grades as an admissions tool is that they are based on multiple assessments that were conducted over time, in various subjects and by means of a wide variety of tests and tasks. These grades reflect knowledge, motivation and perseverance. However, high school grades are not a uniform measure. First, they are not based solely on external exam scores, but also on the personal evaluation of teachers and on a constellation of assessments that differs for each student. Second, Bagrut grades obtained in a particular year are not calibrated to the grades from previous years and can therefore not be compared. Also, many candidates for higher education register quite some time after they finish high school (3–5 years), and their Bagrut grades might not reflect their abilities at the time of registration. Finally, there are those who claim that the high school exams are subject to tampering.
The Psychometric test has its own strengths. First, it offers a second chance to those who did not perform to their full potential in high school and to those who improved their abilities after finishing high school. Second, it is administered just before studies commence. Third, it tests the cognitive skills relevant to most fields of study and is not based on a specific curriculum. Finally, the test is reliable and equitable, and its scores are calibrated so that scores of examinees in different test administrations, languages, and years, can be compared. That said, the Psychometric test also has disadvantages: the score is determined based on a single testing event; it tests a limited sample of skills; and it does not test certain abilities, such as perseverance and creativity, which are relevant to success in academic studies.
Because the Bagrut certificate and the Psychometric test are complementary, it is not surprising that research has shown that the comprehensive score, which is based on a weighted average of the two, is the best predictor of a student’s academic success.
In addition to the comprehensive score, which is made up of the Bagrut score and the Psychometric score, most of the institutions of higher education in Israel use other admissions procedures such as preparatory program scores, online course scores, first year university scores, and the Bagrut score alone (without a Psychometric score). The institutions decide which, if any, of these measures they will use.
Higher Education Admissions
Alternative Admissions Systems
Every admissions system has its limitations. Some people propose alternatives to the present system used in Israel, in order to overcome its limitations. A survey of some 8,000 respondents was conducted in Israel. Some 70% of the respondents proposed basing admissions on a personal interview or on a test in the intended field of study. About 60% proposed reducing the weight of the Psychometric test, or cancelling it completely, and increasing the weight of the Bagrut score. Some 50% suggested basing admissions on achievements in the first year – that is, screening students only at the end of the first year. That said, each of these alternatives has its limitations. These are explained in the following paragraphs.
Those who propose this approach suggest using one or more personal interviews to determine whether a candidate is well suited to a particular field of study. Many applicants favor the personal interview as an admissions tool because they believe it gives them an opportunity to express themselves and also properly represents their abilities and personal characteristics.
However, a great many studies show that the interview is not objective and is susceptible to bias. The interviewers have their own positions and preferences, even when they are unaware of them, and some of these are not relevant to academic success: parameters such as age, gender, ethnicity, manner of speech and external appearance can influence the personal interview and the interviewer’s assessment. Moreover, when several interviewers interview the same candidate, they often disagree about that person’s abilities and chances of academic success. Indeed, many studies show that the personal interview has very little, if any, ability to predict the academic success of candidates. Finally, the use of a personal interview is not practical when a large number of candidates must be screened, because it is difficult to find and train enough professionals to serve as interviewers. In conclusion, the establishment of an admissions system based on interviews would be complex and extremely expensive. Given that interviews are not an effective means of predicting academic success, the undertaking would not be justifiable.
Tests in specific fields of study
This approach would have admissions based on a test that examines the knowledge, skills and personal traits that are relevant to the desired field of study.
Knowledge tests are often unfair. Many fields of study in higher education are not taught in high school and therefore, candidates cannot be expected to have prior knowledge of them. Tests based on prior knowledge are biased in favor of those who were exposed to the subject in high school or in expensive extramural activities, and unfavorably biased toward those were not. Moreover, it is impractical to require a candidate who is applying to several different departments to take a knowledge test in each of them. This would involve a lot of time, money and effort.
For certain fields that require special skills or specific personal traits, customized tests are used in addition to the standard admissions tools. For example, admissions to architecture studies and to several areas of study in the arts are based on a personal portfolio and performance assessments. Likewise, admissions to medical school are based on assessments by evaluation centers that measure aspects of a candidate's personality and behavior.
Admission on the basis of high school grades
Those who favor this approach believe that the Bagrut examinations cover a wide variety of subjects and abilities and reflect the outcome of many years of study. Therefore, they argue, there is no reason to add more screening tools, and candidates should be admitted based on their Bagrut grades alone. Most of the colleges and some university departments implement this approach.
The use of Bagrut grades is not widely accepted in Israel, because the high school exams do not produce an objective, equitable and fair measure of the abilities of candidates, as noted above.
Screening during studies
According to this approach, all candidates should be admitted for the first year, at the end of which they should be screened according to their grades. This approach is implemented by the Open University and by some departments in other universities and colleges.
There are several reasons why screening during studies is not a widely used method. From the institutions’ perspective, many departments are not able to admit large numbers of students, because they don’t have enough classrooms and lecturers. Also, this approach could result in large fluctuations in the number of candidates for each department from year to year, which would make it very hard for the institutions to plan ahead. From the candidates’ perspective, the necessity of successfully taking an admissions test is not removed but merely deferred to the end of the first year. A student who is not admitted for the second year in a certain department will only know this at the end of the year, after investing time, money and effort in vain. That student might not even have time to register for a different department. Moreover, this kind of admissions system is based on a variety of assessments written by many different people in the various institutions over many years. These assessments are neither uniform nor fair.
Screening during studies is a model that has been tried in Israel in the past and has been a total failure. It created a competitive atmosphere in the institutions and put serious pressure on the lecturers to give high grades. It caused a decline in the quality of studies and an increase in costs for both students and the institutions. Moreover, those who were not accepted experienced frustration, failure and a sense of having wasted time. For all these reasons, the institutions discarded this model.