What are common college application essays

University admission: quality through selection process?

In Prussia in 1834, obtaining and establishing the university entrance qualification became a matter for the school system, with the effect of binding the universities. The general abolition of university entrance examinations was evidently no obstacle for German universities to develop into institutions of worldwide recognition and imitation in the course of the 19th century. The lament of the universities that the higher education entrance qualification attested by the schools less and less guarantees the ability to study is, however, as old as this regulation itself. Towards the end of the 1920s, the mouthpiece of the ordinaries, the Association of German Universities, criticized the fact that further layers of the population were shifting towards the higher Schools are crowding in and with it a population that is "naturally without deeper spiritual needs" and therefore "often only succeeds in making the educational goods ... accessible to this public through an artificial and laborious process of upbringing". (1) It does not take a lot of imagination to imagine which applicants would have had a chance if the universities had to decide on the selection according to criteria they had determined.

The selection of students by the universities has not only been on the agenda of many university reformers since the establishment of elite universities was proclaimed as a prerequisite for the international competitiveness of the German higher education system. It is seen as an essential element in establishing a market-like, competitive control of the university system. (2)

With recourse to the neoliberal basic thesis of universal efficiency of market coordination, the question of expediency is already regarded as positively answered on the general, theoretical level. It is assumed as a matter of course that in any case the possible negative effects compared to the efficiency gains are not particularly significant.

However, in relation to the objective, particularly with regard to economic development, of providing as many people as possible with the highest possible qualifications, selection procedures at universities prove to be contraindicated because they solve the problems of coordinating and distributing applicants and university places ineffective and inefficient.

More reliable determination of the ability to study?

The waiver of university entrance examinations is based on the "idea" of a uniform educational system codified in the main features of the Prussian general land law at the end of the 18th century. The rationality of this construct consists in avoiding a second (costly, see below) examination as a prerequisite for the "status passage" from a successful graduate of the school system to a university student. (3) This waiver of a second examination is, as recent studies on high school graduation and academic success show, contrary to popular opinion (still today) objectively justified in the majority of cases. The grades of school certificates for university entrance qualification correlate strongly with those of the final exams. This generally applies to the overall grade as well as to the grades acquired in advanced courses. Interestingly, the choice of advanced courses that is independent of the subject does not result in significantly worse (or better) final degree examinations than subject-specific ones. (4)

If it is true that intelligence to explain differences in performance in a certain area becomes less important as soon as prior knowledge about this area is included and "deficits in intelligence .... can obviously be compensated for by prior knowledge, deficits in prior knowledge, however, not "(5), in particular, selective entrance examinations are largely unsuitable for determining subject-specific key qualifications without specialist knowledge (which can only be acquired in the course of studies) with a prognostic value in relation to later study performance. Since the individual educational progress cannot be reliably predicted, every further examination also increases the risk of wrong decisions. (6)

According to the selection process already practiced in some universities, more harm than good is also to be expected. If the example of Heidelberg University, which has already carried out selection procedures on a large scale, catches on, the probability of extremely problematic selection is extremely high. The law faculty does not necessarily want to select “those with above-average intelligence, but rather those with the best psychological qualities for the subject”. For this purpose, the profile of an "ideal law student" was developed and a psychological institute, which has been dealing with personnel selection procedures in business for many years, was commissioned with the development and implementation of appropriate aptitude tests. In the biology course, hobbies, extracurricular activities and social commitment are asked about in one-to-one conversations with a professor and made a decision criterion. In psychology, the understanding of experimental arrangements is explored with the question of how one can check whether women park worse than men. The motivation to study should be explored in a discussion with the professor. (7)

A particularly problematic aspect of this approach is that a correlation between personality typology and qualifications for studying a certain subject is made and it is also assumed that this can be reliably determined by means of a few written tests and a 15-minute conversation.

In the case of a school-based certification of the higher education entrance qualification with corresponding qualification criteria and procedures, the universities would very likely be the first and loudest to question the validity of this procedure.

Since even the relatively simple procedures of diagnostic tests at universities are characterized by a "high frequency of errors" (8), it is unlikely that they will solve the decidedly more difficult task of prognostic tests with some validity of the results.

The requirement of the Science Council that, if the universities carry out selection procedures, the "validity and reliability of the aptitude diagnostic instruments must be proven" (9), is likely to be met with extremely expensive procedures (see below).

In view of the relatively high degree of agreement between the results of the higher education entrance qualification examinations of the schools and the degree of academic success, the call of the University Rectors' Conference for a selection of applicants through the university's own procedures, which takes priority over the highest school leaving qualification, is extremely ineffective. In contrast, the subordinate selection of applicants (10) among those who did not get a chance after the Abitur grade, rejected by the HRK, may prove to be useful. Since not only professional qualifications, but also the mastery of and adherence to middle-class behavior patterns play a role in the evaluation of school performance, those who did not get away well in the Abitur certificate form a reservoir in which there can still be applicants who were intended for the course Subjects are well qualified.

Incidentally, a gain in effectiveness and efficiency appears to be more achievable if an attempt is made to reduce the remaining frictions between the qualification expectations of the universities and the provision of qualifications and certification by the schools, not through cumulative university entrance exams, but through further improvements in the school system. (11) It is also true In the well-understood interest of the universities, not to release schools from the responsibility of imparting the higher education entrance qualification. Because educational deficits in schools can at best be determined by university entrance examinations - but not remedied.

Quality assurance of training

Furthermore, selection procedures could be justified if the previous admission procedure could be identified as the reason for poor, internationally uncompetitive results, particularly with regard to the training of highly qualified scientists.

With a few exceptions, the German university system has been able to provide both the economy and itself with scientifically qualified staff at a high level in recent years and has also "generated" considerable "export surpluses", especially for the US university system. In the 1998/99 academic year, for example, over 5,000 young scientists with German university degrees were employed at American universities. This number is likely to have increased in recent years. One in five of the foreign science professors in the USA comes from Germany. In contrast, the employment and science systems in the USA, for example, have for a long time been dependent on substantial imports of scientifically highly qualified workers from the university systems of other countries, even though the research universities in particular carry out very complex selection procedures. (12) Selection procedures cannot therefore be considered a necessary one Establish an instrument to secure the qualification level of German university graduates. (13)

Profiling the universities

The previous synchronization of the school and university system via the certification of the higher education entrance qualification by the schools could lose its efficiency if the profile formation that is currently required everywhere leads to highly divergent qualification requirements of the various universities for their students.

There are currently 9,330 undergraduate courses at German universities. (14) If the profile development claimed by the universities were promoted down to the individual courses, we would have many thousands of unique courses. On the other hand, ideally, the interest in a specific training profile on the part of the applicant would have to differentiate itself in the same way so that supply and demand can be communicated in entrance exams.

On the other hand, it is decidedly more likely that the training profiles with regard to the first professional degree will become more standardized than was previously the case. If the restructuring into a two-tier system of Bachelor and Master courses takes place in such a way that basic qualifications are to be acquired in the Bachelor course in relation to a broader subject area, then specific profiles can be used in this study phase and thus in the selection of students play no particular role. Incidentally, within the framework of the policy of harmonizing the EU education systems in the interest of student mobility, with regard to the mutual recognition of study elements (modules), coursework and degrees, a stronger standardization than a differentiation of the undergraduate courses can be expected. It is therefore not to be expected that the profiling of the individual universities will result in significantly divergent qualification requirements with regard to the first degree.

Differences in the quality of training at the individual universities, which could justify specific selection procedures, have not yet been substantiated by reasonably reliable data. The university ranking of the Center for Higher Education Development, which believes that such classifications can be made, is refuted by the data it has collected, unless minor differences are already considered relevant. According to the CHE student survey, the overall assessment of the quality of study in a degree program at the various German universities varies on a possible scale from 1 to 5 in most cases by only 1.5. In the context of this small spread, the qualification in the top group, middle group and bottom group is carried out in this ranking. The high correlation between the good evaluation of the training and the small size of the universities as well as the favorable ratio of teaching staff to students is significant. Accordingly, the "small" universities of Bamberg, Eichstätt, Regensburg, Bayreuth, Greifswald, Ilmenau and Konstanz appear particularly in the various courses of study in the recommendations of this university ranking for "determined people" who "want to be well looked after" and "quickly complete their studies" frequently. (15) After the number of students increased at the universities of the new federal states, they lost their top position in the ranking. The "top group" in the CHE ranking is not qualitatively but quantitatively defined by the small number of students at the universities concerned. Regardless of the details, no relevant differences in the quality of training can be distilled out from these and other ranking attempts that could justify special qualitative selection procedures by the individual universities.

Coordination of supply and demand?

Under the current admission requirements, around 80% of applicants choose a university close to their place of residence where the subject of their choice is represented. Nothing about that should change anytime soon.

It seems very likely that the irritating professional prospects are already anticipated in terms of choosing a place of study close to home. If the state social security systems are now increasingly withdrawn, this option, "at least I have my environment at home", should be strengthened. Ulrich Beck already believes he can make out "signs" that "people are resisting the dictates of flexibility and mobility" and are creating "deliberate compulsions to become rooted". (16)

This means that the individual universities will essentially have to deal with the same applicant population. After the selection process, the same students will sit in the lecture halls as before, minus those who have been retired.

Shorter study times, earlier start of studies?

The fact that university entrance exams could shorten study times cannot be proven, at least when comparing the proportion of students in the age groups between Germany and the USA, in which the system of selecting students by the universities is highly developed.

The main indicator for "late" degrees should not be the lack of selection procedures, but the proportion of part-time students, which is also very high in the USA at 42%, as well as the level of qualification of the degree. (17)

The German "age pyramid" of the students turns out to be very favorable compared to the USA if one regards studying at a scientific university as a reason for legitimation for longer study periods and thus "later" degrees due to higher and more comprehensive training requirements. In the USA around 9%, in Germany around 25% of an age group study at a research university. (18) While the student rate of 25 to 29 year olds is about the same in both countries, in Germany around 14% of an age group complete their studies at a university. In the USA, the equivalent graduation rate (Masters, PhD equivalents) is only about 6%.

In an international comparison, on the other hand, the low proportion of students (11.2%) in the age groups of 18 to 21 year-olds is striking. (19) The "high" average age of graduates is thus due to a comparatively "late" start of studies. Entrance exams could reinforce this if the chances of success can actually or supposedly be improved through special preparatory courses, etc., as in the USA.

The regulation of the repeatability of entrance exams raises an irresolvable dilemma under the premise that degrees should be completed at the earliest possible age. If the repeatability is limited or excluded, this can provoke an extension of the preparation phase; if it is not limited, success could still occur after repeated attempts in "old" age. In any case, a later start of the course is the result.

Regardless of how the application is restricted, due to the overlapping of the dates of the selection process or because the application was made at the "wrong" university, there is still the risk that an admission test will only be passed at the second or third attempt and that the study will start may be delayed by years.

Reduction in the drop-out rate?

The drop-out rates fluctuate considerably depending on the calculation method. According to a method developed by the University Information System (HIS), which strives for the "closest possible approximation to real drop-out behavior", 23% (universities 24%, universities of applied sciences 20%) of German students dropped out. (20)

The highest risk of dropping out is "with students from educationally disadvantaged and low-income backgrounds" who are largely gainfully employed to finance their studies. (21) Entry examinations could be effective here if they do not make individual study qualifications but social origin the criterion for admission to studies.An approach that is not only constitutionally unacceptable, but also constitutionally unjustifiable.

Incidentally, the drop-out rate is not only "statistically" in an international comparison, but also not a problem of particular importance with regard to the employment system. In relation to the graduates, dropouts do not have significantly worse chances on the job market. Apparently, by the time they left the employment system, they had acquired the qualifications that were in demand, so that this time should not be accounted for as a lost investment on the liabilities side. In view of the qualification requirements of the labor market, it would be justified to expand the possibilities of a certified graduation and not to build up the high hurdle of independent academic work before a successful degree for all students. (22)

What do selection procedures cost?

In particular, one can certainly argue about whether there are some useful effects that can be achieved through university selection procedures in one point or another. In order to be able to assess whether these could be of any importance, the cost side should be shown in a rough calculation.

The number of new students has been around 350,000 in recent years. Assuming that the number of applicants is at least 15% higher than the number of admissions, we have around 400,000 applicants per year.

In order to meet the minimum requirements for the justification of selection decisions, the procedure would have to consist of at least a written part to be assessed and assessed as well as an oral hearing and a final assessment by qualified university staff, so that, including the effort of preparation and follow-up, process costs of € 200 per applicant are likely to be set too low rather than too high in a rough calculation.

If the entrance examinations are understood as a competitive coordination process of supply and demand in accordance with their rhetoric of justification, the expenses incurred on the part of the applicant are consequently not to be externalized, but to be included in the cost accounting.

If the selection process is carried out as described above, this would require the applicant to be present at the university location where the application is made for at least two days. For travel and accommodation costs, etc., an amount of at least € 200 should also be estimated here.

In the UK, the College Administration Service limits the number of applications to six. In the USA, it is not uncommon for applicants to go through an admissions process at ten universities. A limitation results here only indirectly from the considerable fees charged by the universities for the implementation of the admission procedure. In addition, in the United States, applicants pay between $ 800 and $ 900 for six-week pre-entrance exam courses. Furthermore, college counselors are hired to practice writing application essays and answering test questions, as well as sending their clients to social institutions in order to include the selection criterion of social commitment on their résumé. (23) Larger universities employ in the USA to carry out the admissions process more than 100 employees (in German terms this means personnel costs of at least € 5 million).

If a corresponding procedural practice were to emerge in Germany, costs of 1 to 1 ½ billion euros would be expected. This would roughly correspond to the current budget of 10 medium-sized universities (without taking third-party funds and medical faculties into account) or the budget of the German Research Foundation (€ 1.27 billion) or the Max Planck Society (€ 1.25 billion). €).

The previous procedure for managing the shortage of study places requires about 10 million € (budget of the central office for the allocation of study places) not even 1% of this amount. Incidentally, if a central institution were to limit applications according to the English model, these expenses would continue to be incurred to a certain extent.

University entrance exams can then serve as a coordination and distribution procedure that increases efficiency and effectiveness if the school and university system are characterized by a strong functional and qualitative differentiation, as is the case above all in the USA and also in England.

If, under these prerequisites, there is no correspondingly differentiated systemic coordination between school qualifications and the divergent qualification profiles of studies at the universities, this gap in coordination must be filled by means of admission examinations at the universities. If the educational systems of school and university are very heterogeneous, the selection as a means of synchronization can be "efficient" as the only remaining means of coordination, despite its high expenditure. The extent to which a high-grade asynchronous differentiation of the education system is ineffective itself, and thus an accumulation of costs with low quality effects, may be left unanswered.

In contrast to this, we in Germany (still) have a very low degree of differentiation in the educational system and a high degree of synchronization of school and university via the school certification of the general and the special, subject or university type-related higher education entrance qualification. There is no qualitative differentiation at the system level. In fact, it is extremely low (in an international comparison) (see above on the prognostic value of the results of the university entrance qualification certificates). There is therefore no coordination gap between school and university system that would have to be closed by university entrance exams, so that there is no valid reason for installing a very expensive status passage between school and university.

Quality assurance instead of selection procedures

If there is a serious mistake in the German education system, it is not the lack of selection through examinations, but that this instrument is overestimated in its usefulness and efficiency for "quality assurance" and is used too often. In our education system, quality assurance is still largely carried out in such a way that the quality of the end products is checked and the wheat is selectively separated from the chaff. Instead, the training processes should be started in order to identify the errors and correct them where they arise. This method of total quality management has established itself in industrial production, not least because it causes lower costs than the selective final inspection of the products.

The PISA study has shown that education systems which largely forego selection and instead focus their efforts on improving qualification processes are generally more successful. H. produce more and better qualified graduates. In the education sector, too, it is evidently more profitable to invest in improving training processes than in selection processes.

According to OECD studies, the "insufficient development of human capital" in Germany is the reason for lower growth in labor productivity and the economy in recent years. (24) In this situation, the introduction of the new control element of the university entrance examinations, the lack of study places as a prerequisite for functioning, as sensible as the therapy of an anorexic with a weight loss cure.

If the degree of dissemination of scientific knowledge in the minds of its members is the determining factor for economic development in the knowledge society, then a control system is required in which not the training places, but the educational potential, the people capable of training function as the scarcest commodity.

On the one hand, the training potential is only available to a limited extent in real terms; on the other hand, a post-industrial society in particular can only train too few, but never too many, of its members in a qualified manner, because scientific knowledge increases the reproductive factor that increases the level of the economic foundations of a Society determines.

A supply / demand model in which the study places function as a scarce commodity to be managed via selective examination procedures proves to be ineffective for analyzing and solving existing problems with regard to the natural and engineering sciences, which are universally regarded as decisive for economic development.

In these subjects, the training capacities have not been exhausted for many years, even at the universities in the various ranking tables in the upper areas. In recent years, several universities have come to understand that investments should primarily be made in structuring the training processes in schools and universities that are appropriate to the interests and prior qualifications of the pupils and students, and that the management of these degree programs via selective entry procedures as a scarce resource is no longer necessary. (Where there is no milk, no cream can be skimmed off. First of all, you have to invest in milk production. The cream then largely settles on its own.)


With the instrument of selective student selection procedures by the universities, no relevant control problem in the German university system can be effectively and efficiently solved. To demand it anyway means to pursue an empirical-resistant theoretical construct along the lines of: "the solution is right, the problem is wrong".

Instead of investing in selection processes, the available resources of the universities should be used to develop and qualify the training potential of the region as much as possible through the broadest possible range of courses at a high level.

Even if the (old) enlightenment-cultural state ideas and the (newer) democratic and welfare state-based understanding of "education as a civil right" and the demand for "education for everyone", which led to a successful university development policy of "educational expansion" in the 1960s and 70s led, are currently not in business, at least criteria (a little de-ideologized) economic rationality should still play a decisive role in the organization and control of the education system. From this point of view, too, a program is required that aims at an optimum level of education, i.e. That is, to train as many people as possible as highly as possible. Setting up further selective examination hurdles on the way to the first degree is not a suitable means of achieving this goal.


1) Communications from the Association of German Universities, Vol. IX (1928) p. 45

2) Gaethgens, Peter. In: FR v. 02/26/03, Rheinischer Merkur v. 10/16/03; see also declaration of the university association v. 1.4.03 in F & L 5 (03, p. 232 DPA-Dienst für Kulturpolitik, Nov. 5, 2001; Research & Teaching 12/2001 p. 629; the recommendations of the Science Council on university access, press release 4/04, decidedly more cautious

3) In Prussia, the entrance exams were abolished in 1834; See Lexis: Reform of the higher education system in Prussia, Halle 1902 p. 8

4) see Marlene Fries: Abitur and academic success. What is the value of the Abitur for a successful degree? In: Bavarian State Institute for University Research and Planning (Ed.) Contributions to University Research 1/2002 p. 30 ff). Special consideration of the Abitur grades of the "subjects relevant to the desired course", as suggested by the HRK Vice President for Admissions Issues, K. Kutzler, (DUZ 6/2003 p. 22) seems obvious, but is factual according to the study by M. Fries not justified.

5) Elsbeth Stern: On the new results of the cognitive psychological research of the Max Planck Institute for Educational Research, in Die Zeit No. 27 of June 20, 2003, p. 65

6) see Jürgen Baumert, in: Rheinischer Merkur 2002, No. 24

7) Cf. Thomas Röpke in Die Zeit from April 16, 2003

8) W.D. Webler: Quoted from S. Hense-Ferch; in: Studium & Beruf, supplement to FR from April 26th, 2003

9) Science Council: Recommendations for the reform of university access (Drs. 5920/04) Press release 7/04

10) see Kurt Kutzler, HRK Vice President for University Planning, Capacity and Admission Issues. In: DUZ 6/2005 p. 22

11) see Loos, Barbara: Only one ticket left. In: Research & Teaching 7/2003 p. 354 f.

12) see Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Ed.): German Young Scientists in the USA, May 2001. Stifterverband für die deutsche Wissenschaft (Ed.) Brain Drain - Brain Gain, 2002

13) Peter Gruss, President of the Max Planck Society. In: Der Spiegel 4 (04, p. 127 "My research colleagues in the Max Planck Society and abroad are happy when German postdocs come to their laboratories. Our young scientists are trained to be absolutely competitive."

14) University compass of the German Rectors' Conference.

15) see Der Stern No. 16 from April 10, 2003 and www.CHE.de.ranking

16) "What will?" In: The time no. 7.8.03, p. 44

17) see Robert Gidden, Mobility and Services. In: Breinig et al. The German and American higher education systems. Münster 2001, p. 138 f with reference to OECD sources

18) USA: 52% students, 18% at research universities (= around 9%), Germany: 37% students, 70% at universities (= around 26%)

19) OECD: Education at a Glance, 1996.

20) The method used by the OECD results in a rate of 30%. For data and methods see HIS Brief Information: Graduate Numbers 2002 and Ulrich Häublein; Causes of dropping out. In: Research and Teaching 5/2003, p. 256 ff.

21) Häublein loc. Cit., Footnote 21, p. 258

22) see W. Hoffacker: More quality? About the functional and qualitative differentiation of the university system. In: Research & Teaching 7/2003 p. 368

23) Grieshaber, in: Die Zeit No. 12 of March 13, 2003, p. 75

24) see OECD: Education at a Glance 2003. And the Federal Ministry of Education and Science, opinion on this OECD report v. 16.9.03, p. 14

Hoffacker, W. (2004): On the benefits and costs of a selection of students by the universities. In: Das Hochschulwesen 1/2004 p. 2 ff

Dr. jur. Werner Hoffacker, Academic Director, Department: University Organization, Development and University Law, University of Bremen, P.O. Box 330440, 28334 Bremen, E-mail: [email protected]

First published in: BdWi / fzs (ed.), 2005, Equal Opportunities Qua Birth? Participation in education in times of privatization of social risks. BdWi study booklet 3, 20-24