Students should not be selected on grades alone

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29 July 2022 | Selection committees must take students’ circumstances into account, write researchers at UMC Utrecht. Although grades and thesis grades from the bachelor give an indication of the candidate’s future academic success, there are several factors to take into account.

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The undergraduate grade point average (GPA) together with the thesis grade are reliable factors for predicting study success during a research master’s degree. This is the conclusion of researchers Kurysheva, Koning, Fox, Van Rijen and Dilaver from UMC Utrecht. In addition, it appears that students who have completed a bachelor’s degree in higher education are, on average, less likely to complete their master’s degree and achieve slightly lower grades. However, the relationship between them appears to be weak. Selection committees can therefore use the bachelor’s grades, but must also take into account the conditions under which they were obtained.

In the study, the researchers compared the examination results of 1,792 master’s students from six cohorts from a Dutch university. All students followed a research master’s degree in life sciences. Of these students, they used the average grade for the bachelor and the thesis grade. In addition, they distinguished between four types of preparatory educational institutions; Dutch universities, foreign universities, higher professional education institutions and University Colleges. Study success was defined as GPA, study duration and whether the student completed the study.


The study showed that the average bachelor’s grade is the best indicator of study success. Students with a higher undergraduate GPA had, on average, a higher graduate GPA and completed their studies faster and more often. In addition, the thesis grade is also an indicator of higher grades during the master’s and how quickly the student completes the master’s.

Students who came from a higher professional education institution or a University College completed their studies less often than students from a Dutch or foreign university. According to the researchers, this may be because HBO bachelors are not research-oriented, so the students have less experience in the field. At a University College, students usually study Liberal Arts and Sciences; a course that focuses on a wide range of subjects. It may be more difficult for them to delve into one topic that way, the researchers write.

Fast international students

Students who had completed an HBO bachelor’s degree also achieved slightly lower grades than other students. However, the effect of previous education on the grades was small. In addition, former HBO students did not take longer on average to complete their studies than other students. The fact that higher education is more practice-oriented can help students with the practical side of research, while other students have less problems formulating the theoretical side. That would explain why there is no clear difference in study duration.

An unexpected result was the study time for international students. They finished their studies faster than Dutch students. The researchers had expected that this group would take longer to complete the education due to a certain culture shock – inside and outside the university. However, all students in this study came from the EU, so the culture shock may not have been that bad. Another explanation is that international students often receive a scholarship for the nominal period of study. Avoiding extra costs can be a strong motivation for students to complete their studies on time.

Scientific publications

The influence of motivation has not been examined in this study. Previous research indicates that motivation is an important factor in the completion of a study. Therefore, the investigated factors do not show a strong correlation with the end and duration of the study. However, motivation is difficult to measure; personal motivation statements are not very reliable, the researchers write. They therefore did not expect that these kinds of factors would show a strong correlation with academic success.

In addition, duration and completion may be affected by what happens during the examination. These conditions can take place on a personal or organizational level or have to do with the guidance. In addition, research master’s students may feel pressured to produce a scientific publication early in their career, the researchers write. As a result, they may decide to take longer to complete their studies.

meritocracy model

It turns out to be difficult to predict study success based on numbers and the type of previous education. The admissions committee may, however, decide to include thesis grades in the assessment, as there is a correlation with the thesis grade and the GPA during the master’s programme. However, the researchers warn that committees do not only admit students who can already do what the program asks of them; there must also be room for students who still need to grow in this area.

In addition, the researchers state that the circumstances under which grades were obtained are also relevant for a selection. While the traditional meritocracy model assumes that positions are earned based on performance regardless of circumstances, it is increasingly recognized that one’s socio-economic background plays a role. However, it is morally and practically difficult to include this in the assessment of prospective students. The researchers therefore argue for taking into account the institution the student comes from.

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