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Good post, lots of interesting points here.

I'm a bit concerned about this idea that we can assume that people with high GPAs haven't lived much on the basis of their high GPA. I can think of two people I know well, both now early-career faculty in humanities programs, who achieved 3.9-range GPAs precisely by living a bit, learning how to dedicate themselves to tasks, and either going (in one case) or going back (in another) to undergrad a bit late and subsequently achieving highly.

In short, it seems hasty to me to assume that the students getting high GPAs are the ones not experiencing life, or at least that the correlation is as strong as you assume, since in at least some instances the life experience is precisely what leads to the high GPA.

Generally though, your points about the need and potential payoff for 'wildcard' students are well taken and surely something that admissions committees would do well to consider. Surely quantitative data tells only a very small part of the story.

Benjamin LS Nelson

I agree with your conclusion, though I am not sure that the analogy to Einstein will sway hardened hearts and minds. ("Ah, but these kids aren't Einstein," they'll say.) Also, a hardened heart might respond to your points about the steady inflation of standards by saying, "Ah, so it's just more competitive now, and that's a good thing." Of course, that response would miss the point, but I think perhaps we need to say a few words about what point has been missed.

1. My sense from grading in the humanities is that grades have diminishing marginal utility, such that the difference between 2.8 and 3 is much greater than the difference between 3 and 3.2, and so on. So, to put the cutoff line between 3.7 and 3.8 looks like it is a cynical exercise in 'whittling down the pile', so to speak. I don't think my experience is idiosyncratic. (Who would argue that the difference between a D+ and C- is anything like that between a B+ and A-?)

2. There is something irrational about adaptive preference formation -- i.e., the fox who wanted the grapes, and upon discovering that he couldn't get them, decided they must be sour. What is perverse about the fox's decision is that it involves a radical preference inversion that is not a function of their integrity, their core sense of what is valuable. Usually, this parable is leveled against candidates and underdogs, as a way of punching down when they are marginalized. But actually, it is a worthy criticism of people on the other side of the table. If you were to consider a set of candidates as equals in a situation of plenty and concoct non-relevant reasons for exclusion under conditions of austerity, then (absent further justification) your preferences are adaptive.

To be sure, it must be granted that standards sometimes legitimately change as competitive pressures change. The problem that we see in (2) is not with tighter or higher standards, though -- it is with normative drift, as increased competition leads to the differential success of deviants whose success derives from the possession of non-task-relevant advantages. Which leads to the third argument:

3. The criterion of success for a cohort is cultural reproduction for the sake of flourishing, and not just conformity for its own sake. That is, when choosing students who are supposed to carry the philosophical torch, you need a mix of those who are capable of structured thought, and who are versatile enough to apply those structures to solve (or discover) potentially novel problems. What you don't need is a monoculture for its own sake, because that will be maladaptive when contexts change. To use a somewhat unflattering analogy: what would evolution be without mutation?

Marcus Arvan

Hi epicurean: thanks! I didn’t mean to suggest that the correlation between high achievement and “living” are particularly high, just that there probably is some correlation there. The more central point I wanted to make was the negative one—that excluding people with lower GPA’s might exclude people who are “different” in ways that might make them good additions to the discipline.

Marcus Arvan

Benjamin: thanks for the very thoughtful comment, which I entirely agree with (particularly the points at the tail end about avoiding monoculture). On the Einstein thing, I know people tend to respond that way, but it really bugs me. I’ve read every Einstein biography under the sun and *nobody* saw great things for him—not his primary school teachers, not his undergrad professors, and not his grad school professors. His first publication was on a really small issue and contained a fatal mistake, and he basically washed out of academia because nobody believed in him. In short, he was in no way walking around with “obvious genius” written on his forehead. He was just a smart dude who prized original thought and didn’t like doing things the way others (including his mentors) thought they should be done. This is my point: before he was *Einstein*, he was a bit of a rebellious screw-up who was nevertheless a smart, interesting guy with diverse interests. My suggestion is that our grad school admissions practices should take heed of this and not exclude people like this—people who are a little different and not necessarily the highest achievers.

Chris Stephens

This is an interesting idea. I think graduate admissions is pretty inexact. I've often wondered if we'd be better off taking the pool of people, all of whom have good writing samples, and simply putting them in a lottery.

At any rate, I'd like to know more about the predictive value of grades.

I know that in the sciences, they have found that high GRE scores aren't a good predictor of scientific success - nor are grades nor undergraduate school nor letters of rec.- at least according to this summary:

So what does predict well? At least according to some studies, "having peers evaluate scientific contributions and research depth" - I guess in philosophy that would be something like having experts evaluate writing samples. Not sure.

I always thought grades in high school were a good predictor of grades in college, but I'm not sure about the undergraduate - graduate school connection. I don't know enough about these studies - maybe grades in graduate school don't correlate well with later success. I dunno. It would obviously be nice to know about philosophy in particular.

A Philosopher

Grade inflation plays a role too, right? Philosophers getting a 3.3 20 years ago might have gotten that 3.8 today. Grade inflation varies by school as well, iirc. I want to say that grade inflation is worse at elite schools, so if grad programs mostly pull from nationally ranked universities, it's not surprising the average is 3.85 (or whatever). 80% --- or something like that --- of students from elite schools probably have >3.5.


Here is the thing that bothers me most about this, and the way undergrads are admitted into philosophy PhD programs overall (and other programs, too). Many philosophers label themselves egalitarian and progressive, and then the philosophical infrastructure supports one of the most elitist games in the book. There is indisputable evidence that high academic achievement, especially prestigious undergraduate institution, is very closely tied to family income and family stability. So basically, the way we do things in philosophy is to say, "Sorry your parents weren't rich and they divorced when you were 10 and that took you off the elitist path, but we don't take damaged goods here."

I dropped out of undergrad after 3 years of barely attending classes. I think I had a 3.1 GPA or something. I then took a little over a year off and transferred, switched to a philosophy major, and had a year and a half of straight As. I think it helped me a lot that what the admission committees initially saw was the GPA from the institution I graduated at, and only under that was my overall GPA.


A Philosopher is also right that the extra grade inflation at elite schools makes all of this even more problematic. But departments care about posting really high numbers for their average entering student.

A Philosopher

There are two kinds of students that catch my attention (and they make up maybe 5% of the students?). The first are the super bright ones: they easily grasp and complete the analytical exercises I give them, they read philosophical texts with surprising comprehension, and they naturally take to writing philosophy papers. The second are the really motivated ones with something to say. They may struggle with the raw logical analysis, miss central themes in texts, and write odd-ball papers. But they really like philosophy, commit serious time to thinking about what we're doing, and have lots of ideas. Usually their work only merits a B. I doubt these students are breezing through their other courses, so they're probably these 2.7 - 3.3 students. Sometimes these students do even worse, because of nontraditional situations or an inability to jump through hoops. So they miss class, fail to turn stuff in on time, etc. I want to say that these students are also really bright, but just struggle to mesh their conceptual framework with mine and the traditional philosophical one. Often times this is to their detriment, but I suspect it's just as often to ours. I get the sense from these students that they have something to contribute, even if I don't really see it yet.

I also get the sense that these students basically never make it into graduate programs. They don't quite have the grades, I imagine most professors probably don't interpret their abilities as charitably as I do (and so won't write strong letters), and usually they can't quite put together a compelling writing sample by senior year. They are better in conversation, often.

But, in line with Marcus, I imagine that these students have just as much to contribute to philosophy as the first type. I don't see why we wouldn't think so. Of course, they won't succeed along the standard metrics as well as the first type: they will struggle to get high grades in grad coursework, they will struggle to crank out publishable papers, etc. But so? Grad coursework grades are meaningless and most publishable papers make little if any real philosophical contribution. If these students shake up our conversations, force us to think differently, and one or two of them come up with highly original ideas that move philosophical debate, who cares? Isn't that good for the profession?

On an unrelated note, I completely agree with Amanda that all this is incredibly elitist in a pernicious way.

tenured but shy

Following up on Chris Stephens's point: I have long favored making anonymized writing samples the first and primary criterion of assessment for grad admissions and job searches. This doesn't mean reading all of every writing sample; it can mean reading enough to get a sense of the paper and continuing as needed. I have done this on my own (in contexts where we were all left to our own devices in making a list of preferred candidates), and didn't find that it took much more time than other approaches. I'm also not necessarily looking for the most polished writing samples when I do that, especially not in grad admissions. Anyway, I would encourage others to give it a try.

david rosner

I would also think that some of these "wildcard" students might actually make better teachers - at least at the undergrad level, and especially with students at less selective schools and at community colleges, where most of us actually teach.

The "wildcards" might ultimately be more relatable. They might be
more able to make the questions of philosophy seem less abstract and more "real" for students - students who themselves may have jobs, families, complicated circumstances, etc.

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