Aptitude Tests; Friend or Foe to Fair Admissions?


BHW: The evermore competitive world of university admissions has deemed it necessary to introduce another barrier to the system, to filter the so-called brightest and best in society; the aptitude and skills tests. The question is, can 50 or so multiple choice questions and an essay judge your merit?

MA: In the past, it was mostly prospective Oxbridge students that had to tackle the aptitude tests. Today, this is not the case. More and more universities have started using the aptitude tests as a tool to distinguish the best of the best by adding another barrier to entry into university. But are they really a barrier? No, aptitude tests are not another pain in the ass during the admission process, they are absolutely necessary. They promote meritocracy in universities. Aptitude tests should be viewed as the friend of the students and not as their foe. They should be viewed as their chance to shine amongst the many aspiring ‘stars’.

BHW: These tests may measure academic excellence, but there are many more important things they leave out. For example, medicinal courses are the most demanding in terms of aptitude tests, both the UKCAT and the BMAT being necessary. But becoming a doctor does not just depend on your academic ability. Of course, this is important, but these tests can’t measure bedside manner or highlight a caring nature. The traits that will make you a good doctor cannot be tested, they must be seen.

MA: The final exams exist to quantify your knowledge, interviews exist to assess your personality, and aptitude tests exist to measure specific types of skills. These include verbal, quantitative and abstract reasoning, and those skills can be measured. The process is similar to an IQ test, and IQ tests are widely accepted. The crucial difference between aptitude tests and anything else is the absence of the human factor. Examiners and teachers are people. People sometimes are influenced by emotions or prejudices, therefore (as some of us know all too well) they cannot always be objective. Bad examiners and bad teachers do exist and will sometimes misjudge students. Aptitude tests come to fix this injustice.

BHW: The fact still remains, though, that this is one more test. Many parents and teachers are concerned that students now are just taught how to pass exams, rather than increasing their own knowledge. According to Mike Nicholson, 90% of applicants sit some sort of admissions test. At university you are supposed to learn how to think independently and broaden your mind. Not only do these tests fail in measuring your ability to do those things, but they pose a threat to their prominence amongst university students. The more exams become the leading factor in admissions, the more we will see freshers who are not able to cope with independent learning.

MA: Furthermore, even if the fact that everyone is objective holds as true, there is still an unfairness when the comparison between the students depends solely on their grades. A grade alone does not mean anything. There are differences in the subjects, the marking criteria, the grade boundaries, the final test as such. It is hard to compare the incomparable, especially for a university that receives applications from all over the world. The aptitude tests make comparison between the applicants easier, since they are the same for everyone. It is the fairest card universities hold during the ‘application game’.

BHW: Does a strict cut of line in a test not potentially mean forgetting about those students who might propel even further with a little bit more support, if they had not had that previously? Many future university students can afford tutors to get them through these barriers of securing a place, but most don’t have the means for this luxury. The unlevelled playing field, therefore, means universities can’t truly judge who would excel most in their studies. Meritocracy is therefore harder to create. In other words, the distortions of tutoring in the otherwise fair playing field still exist and, if anything, are made bigger. This happens exactly because these tests are one more criterion that can be exploited through “dubious” means.

MA: And yet, if you take another viewpoint, you see that aptitude tests prevent exactly that. Some people are simply not studious, but are in other ways very talented and skilful. In some subjects, skills are essential. You can’t be a lawyer if you don’t have good verbal reasoning skills and you can’t be a doctor if you don’t have abstract reasoning skills. One could argue that practice can lead to an outstanding performance. This is true, but up to a point. If the questions of such tests are revised and changed after a specific amount of time, then the results are more objective and useful in selecting and securing the acceptance of only ‘the brightest of the stars’. Testing for skills and not knowledge ensures that those who truly have what it takes to succeed in a given course will have an opportunity to demonstrate their potential beyond academic achievement, in a way that shows directly what kind of mind they have.

BHW: High flying sixth formers or college students might even be put off by the idea of an aptitude exam. Reluctant to jump through even more hoops to get a place at their intended place of higher education. These universities will then be missing out on these students, who might be very successful on their course. This is but another indicator of what aptitude tests fail to account for; people’s will and dedication.