Thursday, January 15, 2009

Past perfect II: the other side of the story

My previous post brought out a great deal of angst. But here's the thing:

CAT + past performance may not be the best way to identify future business leaders. But it is the most OBJECTIVE method available.

Now we can debate the amount of weightage that should be given to various parameters (this year weightage given by IIMA to class 10 & 12 marks in the tie-breaker seem excessive to me). We can also ask for normalisation across boards.

But can we really ask for a more subjective process, a la Stanford and Wharton? In the Indian context that may not work.

One of the foundations of the IIM brand is that the intake is purely on merit. There is no room for influence, money, or any other means of 'getting a seat'. Whether you are the Prime Minister's nephew or the director's son, the IIMs are above bhai -bhatijawaad.

The moment you include more subjective criteria, there are questions. Now you may say ISB also follows a subjective process but then it is not a government institute. Rejected candidates do not go and file RTI.

In an interview to Mint's Sidin Vadukut, last year IIM A director Samir Barua stated that the fall in diversity of the batch (the 94% engineers) was a direct consequence of 'things like the RTI act'. To quote from the article:

... because of RTI and extreme pressure on the IIMs and IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) to explain admission procedures, the institute could no longer be “fuzzy” in the selection process. “Previously, we ensured some sort of diversity by picking up a mix of people from those who cleared the written test. We could introduce a level of subjectivity at the interview stage. But now, because of RTI, applicants who don’t make it demand to know why they weren’t selected when they scored better than another admitted student in the written test.”

But this seems to bother me more than it does Barua. “I think engineers are just as creative as arts or commerce graduates. What irks me is that I lose the ability to pick up someone even if they scored a little less on the test but impress in the discussions and interviews,” he adds.

Of course, I still think it is upto the institute's prerogative to figure out a means to have more diversity (eg lay out a lower cut-off for students from non-engineering streams if they feel it is important to get the right mix in the class!). I think IIM Bangalore has managed this process best amongst all IIMs.

But it is upto the students to accept that either way there will be some 'arbitrariness' in selection.

For all those who hold up the high standards of Ivy League schools, I recommend a book called The Price of Admissions: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges -- and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates by Daniel Goldman.

The book mainly looks at undergraduate admissions, not bschools, but it outlines how subjective an admissions process can become!

Ideally we should have objective criteria, with some room for subjectivity. Which is what we did have, until the IIMs became more transparent.

In my time, if you didn't get in, you accepted that as your destiny and moved on. Now, people take the CAT again and again, and some will use instruments like RTI to know 'why'.

Incidentally, IIMs do use the 'international' method to select candidates for the 1 year PGP X program. But there, applicants are in hundreds, not lakhs!

Given the 246,000 test-takers in the fray for the PGP program, and how important this test has become to them, methinks we'll be fighting CAT and dog over weightages and percentiles for some years to come!


  1. i agree.. in some way.. i think its not just the past performance, but a level of consistent, long term performance that we are looking for. When we dole out managers, we are not looking at sparks of short term brilliance, we are looking at consistent, long term good performance..

  2. Having a process thats subjective as in Ivy league B-schools will not really work. As you said, the number of CAT applicants is about 10 times more.

    Also, the application process in schools that require work experience focuses on proven instances of drive, ambition, leadership and teamwork capabilities over a period of one's career - as opposed to a test of english and math in Indian B-schools.

    This subjectivity loses relevance when 19-20 year old applicants who've so far focused only on being nerds all their life, sit down to write essays on their life experiences.

    It simply will not work in the Indian context where anything outside of studies is discouraged by most parents during teenage years. For the subjectivity to be of any use, the concept of education in India has to be changed from being bookworms to having teens develop a well-rounded personality.

  3. Of all the institutes in India, I think SP Jain has the most subjective process. Being a student, I know how rigorous the process is in spite of being subjective. But every year, we incur the wrath of many students in forums like Pagalguy demanding exact measures of how people get selected.

  4. Well , the only solution that occurs to me is - Have 50 world class institutions like the IIMs. Students should be spoilt for choice not the institutes.

    Why should everyone be fighting and squabling over 6-10 institutes only which churn out only 3000 managers and not all of them from genreal category?

  5. CAT is an objective way, agreed.... BUT that does not means that there is no room for improving this process.

    I dont understand why IIMs call only 1200 ppl for GDPIs.... (And IIMA only 600 :-0)
    Atleast the top 2000 can be called for GDPIs even if that means roping in more profs for the selection process, more money for CAT application,etc. This way ppl who have good performance at work and college and not just high marks in leniant boards, get a chance.

    Also IIMs must declare selectuion criterias in advance. Criterias should not be changed after CAT. As some1 said, if my marks in 10th or 12th are less; I'd rather not give CAT then if I know what ever maybe my CAT result, I wont get an IIMA call coz of a lousy class 10th.

  6. If I recall [since I never gave the MBA entrance tests], the Maha State CET [as it was called, not sure now] also categorically gave clear additional marks for people with a first class in Graduation year.

  7. Some thoughts...

    1. The criticality of Board exams varies from stream to stream. While Arts and Commerce students' focus is largely on Board exams, Engineering and Medicine students' main focus is on host of entrance exams.

    2. Normalization with so many Boards around is not easy. I am not sure if all the IIMs are transparent about their normalization process. IIMB does talk about the process, but the approach to 'compute' the percentile is very basic. It shouldn't be too difficult for IIMs to get the exact percentiles from the Boards. Analysis of 10-15 years of percentile data on the current computation logic may be interesting.

    3. As it is, our education system is quite rigid. If somebody realizes during the course that he has made a wrong choice, it is almost impossible to switch. Unlikely in such a scenario, that a student would put in his best.

    4. IIMs could consider using the Board percentiles only to resolve ties.

    5. IIMs should make the entire process more transparent. The weightage of different components - CAT (and its sections), GD, PI, Work Ex, Board and Graduation marks, normalization and computation process for arriving at results/resolution of ties should all be disclosed in detail.

    6. 20% weightage for CAT score (compared to 15% for class X, 10% for class XII and 15% for Graduation) is too less. CAT is the only area where each candidate is taking a 'Common' test.

    Overall, I think IIMs should be more sensitive to our conditions.

    Reference - PGP Admission Process for IIMB Batch of 2007

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