In India, the criteria for college admissions is very unambiguous and the question of whether you study in a prestigious institutions or not boils down to whether you score well in a standardized exam (e.g., institutions like IIT, AIMS, NITS etc....with some notable exceptions like BITS and VIT).

In USA, there was a related idea with tests (e.g., the SAT, GRE) being used. I infer that these are 'benchmark' tests rather than competitive tests since there is no relative grading and marking is absolute. However, in recent times we can see that the country as a whole is moving away from considering test scores to seeing a student's essays and their personal accomplishments. This was heightened in 2021 where many top colleges dropped standardized testing requirements completely. This leads, in my opinion, to a highly ambiguous admission process.

Between all these different philosophies underlying admissions, was any research put in attempting to find what would be objectively the best criteria / method to choose students? What were its findings?

In essence, I am asking if there is some science which can be used to figure out what is the best admissions procedure. I am not asking for metrics based on personal feelings, but rather from systematic unbiased scientific studies.

This post is in regards to any very competitive admissions process (college, grad school, internship, ...). In less competitive environments (e.g., lower ranked colleges), admission is almost certain if you have just have some minimum quals, and so any aspect of ambiguity is gone.

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    I would question the validity of any "objective" answer to a question that is so involved with local culture, history, and objectives. There are probably too many variables for anything to be very valid generally. Even deciding between "strict" and "permissive" is a cultural issue. Letting an AI handle it would probably produce the worst of all outcomes.
    – Buffy
    Jan 18, 2022 at 20:27
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    This seems opinion-based to me. The “best” way to do something depends on what your goal is, and defining the “correct” goal for admissions is largely a matter of opinion
    – cag51
    Jan 18, 2022 at 20:35
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    Define "correctly". Correct according to whom? To what standard? How do you measure it?
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 18, 2022 at 20:46
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    I'd say it depends on your goal and also your knowledge on the subject. For a fixed goal, if you have more knowledge then you can choose a more optimal way to tackle the same goal. My question does this knowledge exist? Have people tried to venture and ask about this? Jan 18, 2022 at 20:49
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    There are certainly many parents who think universities do it wrong since their son/daughter was not admitted. I would postulate that there is no universal, unambiguous, unanimously agreed-to metric of what is 'correct'. There are many things in the real world where metrics are useless, or even inappropriate and thus less than useless.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 18, 2022 at 21:02

2 Answers 2


The comments already say this in so many words, but the reason nobody wants to answer the question is because your question is ill-posed. You ask

Between all these different philosophies underlying college admissions, was any research put in attempting to find what would be objectively the best criteria/ method to choose students?

The issue is with the phrase "the best criteria". Everyone will have a different way of defining what the best outcome actually is, and many of the following (though not all!) could be considered "reasonable" definitions of best outcome:

  • The student population should be a representative sample of society, including adequate number of women, people of color, people from different income levels.
  • The student population should consist of only the best high school students based on exclusively academic criteria.
  • The student population should reflect in their chosen majors the anticipated demand for future employees in their disciplines.
  • The student population should reflect in their chosen majors the current demand for employees in their disciplines.
  • The student population should be chosen in such a way that it maximizes the future tax revenue of the state or country that finances the university.
  • The student population should primarily be composed of the children of the state or country that finances the university.
  • The student population should give underrepresented minorities a chance to catch up and undo historical injustices that have led to their underrepresented state.
  • The student population should be chosen in such a way to maximize future charitable giving to the university by only selecting those who will likely have large incomes.
  • The student population should be chosen in such a way to maximize near-term charitable giving to the university, by only selecting those whose parents have large incomes.
  • If you're a white nationalist, you would want to make sure that no non-white people get accepted.

With a few minutes of thought, you will probably be able to add another half a dozen possible criteria. The upshot of this thought experiment is that it is not clear at all what the best goal actually should be, and as a consequence it is entirely unclear what the best admission strategy should actually be.

There is almost certainly a large amount of research on admissions (which I'm entirely unfamiliar with), but it will not address your question about "the best way" -- it will only be able to address how different admissions choices affect certain outcome metrics.


There's a plethora of such research, just look on Google Scholar with search terms such as "university admissions". Below are two example abstracts.

Theory-Based University Admissions Testing for a New Millennium

This article describes two projects based on Robert J. Sternberg's theory of successful intelligence and designed to provide theory-based testing for university admissions. The first, Rainbow Project, provided a supplementary test of analytical, practical, and creative skills to augment the SAT in predicting college performance. The Rainbow Project measures enhanced predictive validity for college grade point average (GPA) relative to high school GPA and the SAT (an acronym that originally stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test but that now stands for nothing in particular) and decreased ethnic-group disparities in test scores. The second, the University of Michigan Business School Project, provided supplementary tests of practical skills to augment the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) in predicting business school performance. Scores on two types of measures of practical skills predicted performance inside and outside the classroom and explained variance in performance beyond GMAT scores and undergraduate GPA. The measures tended to exhibit less disparity across gender and racial or ethnic groups than did the GMAT. The findings from the two projects demonstrate the potential value of including a broader range of abilities in admissions testing.

Implementing quotas in university admissions: An experimental analysis

This paper studies the implementation of quotas in matching markets. In a controlled laboratory environment, we compare the performance of two university admissions procedures that both initially reserve a significant fraction of seats at each university for a special subgroup of students. The first mechanism mimics the sequential procedure currently used by the central clearinghouse for university admissions in Germany. This procedure starts by allocating reserved seats among eligible students and then allocates all remaining seats among those who were not already assigned one of the reserved seats in the first part of the procedure. The second mechanism is based on a modified student-proposing deferred acceptance algorithm in which all seats are allocated simultaneously. In theory, the two mechanisms should lead to similar outcomes. Our experimental results, however, suggest that, relative to the sequential procedure, the simultaneous mechanism significantly improves the match outcomes for the beneficiaries of reserved seats.

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