Meritocracy is the worst form of admissions except for all the other ones

I’m now going to say something explicitly that I hinted at in June: I don’t think a student deserves to make MOP more because they had a higher score than another student.

I think it’s easy to get this impression because the selection for MOP is done by score cutoffs. So it sure looks that way.

But I don’t think MOP admissions (or contests in general) are meant to be a form of judgment. My primary agenda is to run a summer program that is good for its participants, and we get funding for N of them. For that, it’s not important which N students make it, as long as they are enthusiastic and adequately prepared. (Admittedly, for a camp like MOP, “adequately prepared” is a tall order). If anything, what I would hope to select for is the people who would get the most out of attending. This is correlated with, but not exactly the same as, score.

Two corollaries:

  • I support the requirement for full attendance at MOP. I know, it sucks for those star students who qualify for two conflicting and then have to choose. You have my apologies (and congratulations). But if you only come for 2 of 3 weeks, you took away a spot from someone who would have attended the whole time.
  • I am grateful to the European Girl’s MO for giving MOP an opportunity to balance the gender ratio somewhat; empirically, it seems to improve the camp atmosphere if the gender ratio is not 79:1.

Anyways, given my mixed feelings on meritocracy, I sometimes wonder whether MOP should do what every other summer camp does and have an application, or even a lottery. I think the answer is no, but I’m not sure. Some reasons I can think of behind using score only:

  1. MOP does have a (secondary) goal of IMO training, and as a result the program is almost insane in difficulty. For this reason you really do need students with significant existing background and ability. I think very few summer camps should explicitly have this level of achievement as a goal, even secondarily. But I think there should be at least one such camp, and it seems to be MOP.
  2. Selection by score is transparent and fair. There is little risk of favoritism, nepotism, etc. This matters a lot to me because, basically no matter how much I try to convince them otherwise, people will take any admissions decision as some sort of judgment, so better make it impersonal. (More cynically, I honestly think if MOP switched to a less transparent admissions process, we would be dealing with lawsuits within 15 years.)
  3. For better or worse, qualifying for MOP ends up being sort of a reward, so I want to set the incentives right and put the goalpost at “do maximally well on USAMO”. I think we design the USAMO well enough that preparation teaches you valuable lessons (math and otherwise). For an example of how not to set the goalpost, take most college admissions processes.

Honestly, the core issue might really be cultural, rather than an admissions problem. I wish there was a way we could do the MOP selection as we do now without also implicitly sending the (unintentional and undesirable) message that we value students based on how highly they scored.

13 thoughts on “Meritocracy is the worst form of admissions except for all the other ones

  1. They are basically giving more privilege to people who are already very privileged. But the title is right. That’s how the world works I guess.

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    • Because MOP uses an exam that cost on the order of a dollar to take, it is by far the most accessible to talented poor kids.

      I was a (very) poor and non-privileged kid who made US IMO team.

      If the selection process for MOP had involved a written application or, even worse, recommendations, I would have had no clue what to do, and/or no interest in such bourgeois pretensions, and not applied. Those elitist math summer camps that Comfortable Establishment Teenagers from academic/professional families go to as training to become professors were (1) things I never heard of, and (2) things I would have run away from screaming had they been described to me, even if in reality they were fun places and the people attending were perfectly reasonable human beings. Another not inconsiderable factor was that (3) the concept of applying in order to *pay money* (spare dollars did not exist in my world) to attend a *summer camp* existed on a different planet than the one I lived on until the end of high school.

      That MOP was free and based on a cheap test was the only factor that made it possible for me to go.

      In response to Evan’s speculation about lawsuits: there was a very litigious kid whose parents threatened a lawsuit because the team selection procedure did not, a priori, guarantee him a spot on the IMO team based on his other performance (I am being a bit vague to omit identifying details). Later he filed lawsuits against other people for other reasons. The population of smart math people includes a lot of strange and (or) rigid types who are prone to conflict and in the US that means lawsuits.

      (and yeah, the culture shock at university was bigger than you can imagine.)

      On the other hand, self-studying math from books, after a certain amount of which I realized I could also solve most of the competition problems up to IMO level, was something I could do.

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      • Sorry, the text got a bit scrambled in editing (sentences meant for deletion or editing stuck around at the bottom) but the gist should be clear enough.

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      • Thanks for sharing your story! I think hearing this helps confirm my feeling that score selection, although imperfect, is miles better than anything else wrt openness and fairness. You don’t need to have connections or know the right people or whatever — just a math test, all of whose past problems can be downloaded for free online.

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      • Now that we’re talking about it, it occurs to me that selection based exclusively on a test, which was the critical factor for me, doesn’t have to mean selection by the test score alone.

        For example, if the USAMO grading notes brilliancy of particular solutions, like the Special Prize at IMO, then those could be used (maybe as part of an index) for selecting students. Or award a certain number of points toward selection for being female, or from a state that did not have MOP qualifers lately. Or look over the USAMO papers of the 30 highest scorers who missed the cut, and invite a few who subjectively seem promising based on a reading of their tests. In other words, you could in theory give it a complexity and philosophy similar to college admission as long as the tests are the only form of “application material” considered.

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  2. Agree. Actually, Sir Winston Churchill has said “…Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others [that have been tried].” The last words have been said.
    I cannot think of any other serious grading (selection) tried, except that based on the scores received at some competition/competitions. It’s fair only that way.

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  3. >> Selection by score is transparent and fair

    My understanding is MOP is selected by score but the US IMO team selection can, and maybe at times does, involve subjective factors under the current “TSTST” system where, e.g., the candidates’ willingness to work over the preceding year is monitored.

    And if that is not true, they have abandoned the principle of an open competition that selects the top 6 in the year of the contest and instead make things dependent on previous years’ results — which is almost the definition of “privileging the privileged”.
    A fully transparent-and-fair process would apply a single selection standard to the whole population and let the chips fall where they may even if that involves losing to China every year.

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    • US IMO selection is completely deterministic even under TSTST. The details are too long for me to comment but the short story is that
      IMO index = Dec TST + Jan TST + RMM Day 1 + 0.6 * APMO + USAMO
      With the point being that selection is done by an explicit formula..

      It is admittedly a much longer (>1 year) process with many more exams, but it is uniform.

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      • It is not uniform in the sense that a few people who take the test are eligible to compete for the IMO team and the rest are not, independent of their performance on the tests and even at MOP should they qualify for it. It is theoretically possible for someone to outscore everyone on the USAMO and all MOP exams but not be considered for IMO. I understand it is uniform in a different sense but not the one that corresponds to the idea of an open competition.

        I also seem to remember something, maybe from postings on AoPS, about the team leaders being authorized, in theory, to select at most one member of the IMO team based on their judgement and not (only) the defined selection indices. But there was also no indication that this elastic clause was ever actually used. Do you know if there was in fact such a rule at any point and whether it ever came into effect?

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      • The remark about “willingness to work throughout the year” was, IIRC, from AMCDirector in some thread on MOP/IMO selection. It’s possible he meant that as a synonym for administering TST’s during the year, thus deterministic selection, but I am not sure if that is consistent with what I read. Memory gets iffier with age so I am not confident of what exactly was said at the time.

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      • Well, I understand one of the major reasons for switching to TSTST was that running the TST in June was just too much administrative headache — knowing the IMO team by May makes e.g. visas much less troublesome. And I do think it’s a nice thing to have some events during the school year, rather than all at once at the end. So I can see the rationale behind the year-long selection, even though I miss the old TST system for various reasons as well (like the one you mentioned).

        When the TSTST was first introduced in 2011, there was indeed an elastic clause. To my knowledge it was never used and by today has been eliminated completely.

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  4. By the way, a famous illustration of “the worst form of admissions except all the others” was the US Women’s Chess Championship. Traditionally it had been used as one of the selectors for the US team to the women’s chess olympiad, and the champion was guaranteed a spot on the team.

    One year Anna Hahn (Khan) surprised everyone by winning the US championship, beating the higher rated players, which should have put her on the team for that year’s olympiad. The US chess federation decided that other players were better based on past performance, and changed the rules (or used their own “elastic clause”, I’m not sure which) to exclude her. Naturally this was very controversial.

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