Practical strategies to help reduce bias in admissions

The push for equitable admissions is strong, propelled in part by the fall-out from the college admissions scandal and continued advocacy during the pandemic for an overhaul of institutional practices that support systemic racism. Higher education institutions are working hard to build more diverse and inclusive incoming classes, but overcoming bias in selection is not easy. 

While we’ve previously provided tips on how to reduce the impact of implicit bias in your day-to-day work, we’ve compiled a list of resources and practical strategies to enhance your training and decision-making processes.

Train your team on a regular basis

Most teams undergo bias training once a year (if that), but bias is pervasive and constant. Training needs to be a part of your team’s regular routine, which is why we recommend increasing the frequency of your training sessions and incorporating learning opportunities at the beginning of your regular meetings. 

Training tips:

  1. Hold comprehensive training sessions every term or semester

Given the different types of biases that exist and the countless ways they can manifest in everyday situations, consider implementing training sessions every term or semester. Increasing the frequency of this type of training can keep the content fresh in your mind throughout the year and keep you up-to-date on the latest research in bias and effective mitigation strategies. You can even break up the training sessions to focus on a specific type of bias to deepen your knowledge and expertise. 

  1. Maintain an accessible library of continuous learning resources

Ensure you have a dedicated resource center for bias training materials that your team can access year-round. These should include materials from your comprehensive training sessions and additional resources. Here are some resources you can add to your library now:

  1. Apply your learnings at the beginning of each team meeting

Recognizing and mitigating bias needs to be a continuous exercise, so occasional training won’t be enough. Incorporating your learnings into everyday work will be crucial. That’s exactly what California University of Science and Medicine and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai did. 

They used a cognitive bias heuristic from Business Insider to develop their own targeted training program and added additional biases that often show up in committee proceedings and discussions. By using actual comments from committee meetings and proceedings, they were able to help their own team link comments to types of biases that they might represent. Lessons from this training program were synthesized into a few slides that were reviewed and discussed at the beginning of each meeting to help cultivate a culture of recognizing and mitigating bias.

BONUS: Interested in learning more about how these two programs transformed bias training for their selection committees? Attend the Admissions Summit and don’t miss their session, “Bias breaks for admission and selection committees” on June 9 at 1:30 PM

Identify selection tools and processes that negatively affect under-represented groups

Admitting well-rounded candidates requires balanced use of cognitive and non-cognitive measures. GPA and other cognitive scores do predict future academic and career success to an extent, they can hurt underrepresented groups when too much weight is placed on these metrics. For example, data from the AAMC showed that the average MCAT score for Black or African American individuals in 2020 was almost 10 points lower than White individuals, while Hispanic and Latino individuals scored six points lower. These groups also reported lower GPA in the same year.

Cognitive metrics aren’t the only tools that could be negatively affecting under-represented groups: 

  • Personal statements tend to favor white, privileged applicants who have the means to access personal statement coaches and consultants. A study by Murphy and colleagues also shows that personal statements don’t even have strong correlations with other personal and professional predictors, including verbal ability tests, quantitative ability tests, prior GPA, letters or recommendation, and interviews.
  • Multiple studies have shown that reference letters tend to describe under-represented groups in a less positive manner. For example, one study revealed that certain positive words were used less often when describing under-represented male applicants, while another study revealed that reference letters for women often contained words or phrases that raised doubt about their capabilities.
  • Unstructured interviews raise the risk of biased decision-making. A few years ago, the University of Texas Medical School was required by the State Legislature to accept a total of 200 students into their program after they already accepted their usual 150 students and after all other top-ranked candidates had been spoken for by other schools. The school only made an offer to seven additional applicants. Researchers found there was no difference in in-program performance between the applicants who were initially accepted and those who were initially rejected. But why did the rankings of these applicants differ so much? It turns out it was interviewers’ perceptions of the candidates in unstructured interviews.
BONUS: Concerned about some of your assessment tools? Read these articles to learn more about measuring their reliability and validity:
Measurements for the success of assessment tools part I: reliabilityMeasurements for the success of assessment tools part II: validity

Consider new tools, metrics, and resources

New selection tools, processes, rubrics, and weighted formulas are emerging with more and more programs adopting holistic admissions models. While no single tool is perfect or free from bias, incorporating any of these tools and strategies can help you on your journey to create a fairer, more equitable admissions process.

Here are a few things you can consider for your own process:

  • Conduct structured interviews. These could include multiple mini interviews (MMIs). Standardized, structured interviews have higher reliability metrics and provide a level-playing field because applicants are judged on their responses to the same set of questions. 
  • Other standardized non-cognitive assessments like situational judgment tests (SJT) can reliably measure key personal and professional attributes, while saving your team time since the tests are rated for you. Open-format SJTs rated by vetted and trained humans are recommended over the closed-format (i.e. multiple choice) to reduce the impact of bias.
  • Developing a weighted formula to consider socioeconomic background characteristics can also help broaden the pool of applicants for admission into your program. This is exactly what the physical therapy program at California State University did, and the results showed that this formula led to increased linguistic, socioeconomic and racial diversity while not putting qualified applicants claiming “White only” racial identity at a disadvantage.
BONUS: Want to learn more about California State’s weighted formula for admissions? Attend the Admissions Summit and don’t miss the session, “Admissions weighting of SES as an inclusion practice” at 11:30 AM on June 9.