Two college students sitting in the grass, chatting and studying with a large, brick building in the background. Image by Keira Burton from Pexels is licensed under Pexels license.

Opening a college admissions letter can be an exhilarating experience for some applicants and a crushing blow to others. Considering the importance of college admissions in many people’s lives, social scientists wanted to understand students’ beliefs and buy-in to the saying “hard work pays off.”

Researchers Rebecca Wetter and Claudia Finger analyzed the effects of acceptance and rejection from competitive German medical schools on beliefs about “meritocracy” – the idea that success is based on talent, skill, and hard work. When applicants were admitted to medical school, their confidence in the importance of personal effort for success increased. Alternatively, when applicants were rejected from these elite schools, they were less likely to believe that the application system was merit-based, and instead believed that economic resources and family background were more important for success in life. 

Results from the study confirmed that beliefs about the admissions system depended in part on whether applicants’ parents had attended college. Prospective students whose parents had attended university were much more likely to believe that their effort and skill would be rewarded in the application process. But if their parents had not had the privilege of higher education, applicants were more likely to see admission as depending on factors like affluence or class instead of their hard work and merit.

Findings like these are important to consider as countries continue to change their higher education systems. As tensions mount concerning college admissions around the world, the results of this German study serve as a reminder that the application process can undermine applicants’ beliefs in the fairness of the system and the idea that hard work will be rewarded.