College Admissions

Should Colleges Require Coding Tests for Admission?

I was recently speaking with an alumnus of MIT who currently volunteers as one of the school’s prospective student interviewers. He’s a computer science major and works as a software developer for a financial company.

At some point during our conversation, we began discussing the different types of students he gets to meet while interviewing them for MIT. He told me of one student that he had recently met who raved about just how much she wanted to become a programmer. She intended to be a computer science major and work for a large company, such as Google. As a software guy himself, this of course piqued his interest. He began to ask her about what sorts of things she’d already programmed and what type of experience she had.

She seemed confused by the question. “Well, my school doesn’t offer any classes, so I haven’t done any programming yet,” she said.

“When I hear students say things like this, something just doesn’t add up,” the interviewer shared with me. “If they’re just so interested in comp sci, why haven’t they put in even a little bit of effort to try and learn something about it?”

I tend to agree with this. If you intend to go to one of the top schools in the world for a particular subject, especially a subject as accessible as Computer Science, shouldn’t you have at least some form of experience with it? Even if your school doesn’t offer the classes, shouldn’t you at least try to teach yourself to program, even if it’s just the basics?

Programming is different from a lot of other subjects in that there exist dozens of excellent websites and books that can teach you how to program in just about every different language, all for free. There’s really no necessary startup cost to learn programming, and within your first week you can be making something useful or cool. While many subjects might not have this convenience, programming certainly does.After the conversation ended, I went home and thought about it some more. I’m now beginning to think that some schools may benefit from including a programming skills test as part of their admissions criteria for Computer Science (or related) students. They already require you to prove your worth in Math, English, and even Science; why not programming? The test could simply help to ensure that a student’s interests really are as strong as they claim them to be.

Many companies require job applicants to write a few sample programs before hiring them. This helps separate the applicants who are “all talk” from those who can actually do the job. Perhaps an admission test could do something similar for schools looking to find the best computer science students they can?

I understand that many students do not know what they wish to major in when they head off to college, and are still trying to explore as many different career opportunities as they can. That’s fine! I don’t think that every student should have to take these programming tests, nor do I think that every school should require them. However, I believe that the big names, such as Carnegie Mellon, would certainly benefit from such requirements.

I also understand that some other schools, such as MIT, don’t really factor intended major into their admissions process. If they like you, they’ll admit you into MIT. They don’t admit you into the Computer Science program specifically (as Carnegie Mellon does). Perhaps this idea doesn’t fit them as well, then, either. However, gaining a useful understanding of how much a prospective student already knows in the field that they will likely study could certainly prove useful to these admission officers.

Perhaps, instead of having applicants take simple programming tests, these schools should require some form of a basic test of logic to ensure that the student has some form of aptitude for the subject? Or, instead of requiring yet another standardized test, they should provide extra space on applications for these students to briefly describe their experience with programming?

What do you think?

Photo Credit: Janet McKnight

Eric Jeney is a Java aficionado with a number of projects under his belt. He enjoys programming for the web, and writing about his experiences. He currently studies Computer Science at the University of Maryland.

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