For six years I have been spending one Saturday per semester at Técnico in an event named Pitch Bootcamp where about 200 specialists in human resources and Técnico alumni help 180 students to summarize in a 2-minute presentation their full potential for an employer. Being responsible for the employability of the students, these Saturdays allow me to have a sample of the evolution of the future candidates and what do employers value most.

To me, this last edition of Pitch Bootcamp was marked by a third year student of Applied Mathematics and Computing. It is one of the most selective programs in the Portuguese higher education system in which the last student admitted had an average high-school grade of 18.35 out of 20. In the conversation with the four members of the panel we noticed an increasing discomfort of the student that ended in an emotional outburst: how could it be that her grade average was now just 13 out of 20?

Any person that has worked on optimization algorithms knows that the use of a single metric in problems with multiple outputs often prevents the convergence to the desired solution. The problem that the education system addresses is in how to provide a better future for the student and the focus on the grade point average, as a single metric, leads to the erroneous conclusion that this grade is the only indicator of professional success. Unfortunately, I have the perception that more and more students use this unique metric of success and that they move away from any activity that could undermine this result. This seems to be a natural consequence of the Portuguese University application process that relies solely on an average grade that conditions almost the whole course of primary and secondary school students and which, as we shall see, is wrongly maintained when they become university students.

Several researchers have sought to identify screening methods that can predict the job performance of candidates. Frank L. Schmidt of the University of Iowa summarized in two articles from 1998 and 2016 the results of many years of research in this field. The winning method of the 19 evaluated is the General Mental Ability (GMA) intelligence test that improves when combined with an integrity test or structured interviews. Unfortunately, GMA testing is designed and benchmarked based on historical data that results in racial and gender bias. A bibliographical summary by Imose & Barber (2015) in the use of the GPA in recruitment processes states that many recruiters use this measure instead of GMA because it is less biased against diversity. A minimum value for the GPA is often used when the number of candidates is high but it is difficult to use when comparing candidates from different higher education institutions.

In 2013, Laszlo Bock, who is responsible for human resources at Google, gave an interview to the New York Times where he talked about the methodology used by the company to correlate the assessment in the recruitment process with the performance of the hired candidate. Google’s huge data set shows that the GPA, recruiters’ opinion, and brain teasers (“how many golf balls can you fit in a 747?”) have no predictive power. The lack of correlation between the GPA and the professional performance comes from the artificiality of the academic environment where the student knows that the teacher wants a specific answer. Laszlo Block confirms Schmidt’s results on the value of structured interviews. In the interviews they ask the candidates to talk about a difficult problem that they have solved. By telling their own experience, candidates offer valuable insight into how they dealt with a real-world situation and what they consider to be a difficult problem. This reinforces the importance of the model of experiential learning that gives this connection to the real world and that we use, for example, in the teaching of entrepreneurship (see chronicle “Lego Blocks” in the jornal-i edition of May 22nd, 2018) .

American universities themselves are changing student admissions processes. The University of Chicago, the third-ranked by US News with an admission rate of 7%, announced in June that it will no longer require standardized ACT / SAT tests for its candidates. One of the objectives is to increase the recruitment of low-income students or with parents with no higher education. The results of these candidates are hampered by parents’ inability to help or hire tutors to help them prepare for the exams. The main cause of this change is the availability of data and statistical tools that allow the use of a greater number of indicators to help in the selection of candidates with greater potential.

Fortunately in my Pitch Bootcamp table was a former student of mine who gave the best possible support to the student: he told her that he himself had taken more time to complete the degree and finished with a worse final average than hers, but he is now a member of the board of directors of the company he works for.

Adapted from my Jornal i column, March 19th, 2019