Monday, January 20, 2014

We don't care about Ballroom Dancing. Should we?

YOU got into your undergrad school because not only were you good at Math but you were on
the Fencing Team and in the Latin Club (so you could taunt your opponents in Latin: ouyah allcay athay an alestrabay!). Also you had a letter from your principal who never had you for a class but can comment on your leadership since you organized a pep rally for the football team. Why does UNDERGRAD admissions care about these things? Because, while they want good students, they also want to build a community of scholars of different interests and abilities.

YOU apply to grad school in Computer Science. Hey, it worked once maybe it will work again! You write about being in the ballroom dancing club and you have a letter from the Dean, who never had you in a class,
but you worked in his office and he can attest that you are a good leader and a hard worker.

Does the admissions committee care? NO. The only things we care about are CS, MATH, and RESEARCH. A letter from someone not in math or science is worthless. Some exceptions and thoughts:

  1. If you recorded ballroom dancing and made a project out of how to teach it using some interesting new technology this IS good. This is likely an Human-computer-interaction project; however, I would care about this no matter what field you are going into.
  2. If you have an interest in Nat Lang Proc and know Linguistics I would care.  I would think that knowing a foreign language would also be good.
  3. If you are going to go into Human computer Interaction then Psychology helps.
  4. If you are going to do Quantum Computing then Physics is good. However, whatever you do Physics is good as its more evidence of math ability.
  5. For ugrad its been said that if your parents are powerful OR donors you may have an easier time getting into some UGRAD schools. What about Grad school? I've honestly never seen a case of this so I honestly don't know. 

I know a student who is an excellent math major but also a creative writer. I doubt this will help him.
but should it?

I once saw in a students application a letter from his preacher attesting to his fine moral character.
Do we care? should we? How about the other way around- if someone was an EXCELLENT programmer and math person but served 8 years for armed robbery would we care? This might not be fair since perhaps he reformed.

but my real question is- for grad admissions we don't care about Ballroom Dancing or other misc.
Is this a mistake? If someone was NOT as good at math BUT a better writer, should we take them?


  1. Every couple of years you see an application from an ex-convict. I've never seen one admitted. Of course, it might just be for the same reasons that most people are not admitted, but I can imagine that a potential advisor might think twice before taking on an ex-con as an advisee.

  2. Actually, the primary historical reason why we have all sorts of weird factors taken into account in undergraduate admissions (well roundedness, activities, athletics, interviews, letters from guidance counselors, etc.) is to justify discrimination. Basically, in the early to mid 20th century fancy universities were looking for ways to justify their admission decisions that didn't come down to rejecting people for obviously discriminatory reasons (being poor, black, Jewish, etc.). It turns out to sound a lot better to say you admitted someone because of their rare ballroom dance or fencing talents, and not because they went to an expensive prep school where they could easily study such things. "Leadership potential" sounds good but in practice can mean "this student would fit in and be popular with the sort of students who attend our university," which justifies all sorts of decisions. If someone outperforms the other applicants academically but seems too nerdy (or Jewish, or urban, or whatever), you can reject them because they aren't well rounded. Valuing letters of recommendation from authority figures other than teachers means it's easy for those who are well connected to pull strings. See "The Chosen" by Jerome Karabel for extensive documentation.

    Nowadays all this has been retconned as being done for admirable reasons, but the actual history is pretty ugly. I don't see a good reason to extend it to graduate admissions.

  3. I think being a decent writer is a definite plus even in technical fields. You can't get through a PhD without doing a lot of writing, and a clear writing style is very helpful for getting your ideas across. Even though creative writing is different from technical writing, it's some evidence of being able to compose a coherent text. But then again, the personal statement already gives some indication of being able to write. I think being able to give a coherent talk or lecture is also a plus, especially in a conference centered field like ours (or if the grad student will be supported by a teaching assistantship).

  4. Surely writing is important? I know I'm more likely to wade through and recall a well organized, readable paper. Research is just the start. You then need to communicate that research, and ideally, convince people it matters.

    To the extent that ballroom dancing signals basic interpersonal ability, there's useful information there. I've worked with a couple people over the years with poor social skills and it can truly hamper productivity for a group.

    Why not do a study? Between students who went through your program, or students who sent an application but went elsewhere, it should be simple to see if any of these qualities: recommendations from non-professors, extracurricular activities, GRE writing score, etc. correlates with better outcomes (graduation rate, h-index, paper count, eventual professorship, whatever you want).

  5. I think it's an interesting question. Data would be interesting -- do "well-rounded" people who apply and go to graduate school in CS have better careers long-term? (This already leads to the problematic question of how do we define "better careers", as well as the problematic question as to whether "well-rounded" people are already being biased against.)

  6. Don't outside interests pretty much work against the idea of getting a doctorate? You do ballroom dancing? How many hours away from the lab is that? You have a dog? You'll have to go home at set times to walk it? You're an avid rock climber? That means not only time away from the lab but also the risk that I'll be stuck paying you while you are in a hospital recovering from a fall.

  7. I regularly hear reference to a survey done at a highly ranked CS department (CMU?) a couple of decades ago: When they surveyed faculty about who they thought were their department's strongest PhD graduates and looked back at the admissions information, the correlation was with something like GRE English/writing scores. So maybe writing should be taken into account much more than we do.

    At first this seemed surprising. However, when I was running similar data on our own students (to find the correlations between the now-terminated GRE CSE subject test scores with grad course grades), I realized that this should not be surprising since the ranges of the technical factors among accepted students seemed very small:

    CS grad students are chosen in large measure based on their technical record - we immediately perceive small variations in this part of students' records - but the real differences between them that we could measure were not so significant and are often swamped by their inherent noisiness. (Of course we look at students wholistically from a technical point of view and it isn't just numbers.) The true variation in the things we don't put so much emphasis on in selection is much greater than in the things we do. So, someone who is measured to be within a small distance from top on the technical side (as far as can be determined from an application) may be essentially as good as someone at the top, This leaves room for the very useful measurable qualities that we don't emphasize such as English/writing to be the ones that correlate with success.