The Hidden Agenda Revealed

Recently I asked my readers to look at the 1976 written math exam that was given to applicants wishing to study at the math department of Moscow State University. Now it’s time to reveal the hidden agenda. My readers noticed that problems 1, 2, and 3 were relatively simple, problem 4 was very hard, and problem 5 was extremely hard. It seems unfair and strange that problems of such different difficulty were worth the same. It is also suspicious that the difficult problems had no opportunity for partial credit. As a result of these characteristics of the exam, almost every applicant would get 3 points, the lowest passing score. The same situation persisted for many years in a row. Why would the best place to study math in Soviet Russia not differentiate the math abilities of its applicants?

In those years the math department of Moscow State University was infamous for its antisemitism and its efforts to exclude all Jewish students from the University. The strange structure of the exam accomplished three objectives toward that goal.

1. Protect the fast track. There was a fast track for students with a gold medal from their high school who got 5 points on the written exam. The structure of the exam guaranteed that very few students could solve all 5 problems. If by chance a Jewish student solved all 5 problems, it was not much work to find some minor stylistic mistake and not count the solution.

2. Avoid raising suspicion at the next exams. The second math entrance exam was oral. At such an exam different students would talk one-on-one with professors and would have to answer different questions. It was much easier to arrange difficult questions for undesirable students and fail all the Jewish students during the oral exam than during the written exam. But if many students with perfect scores on the written exam had failed the oral exam, it might have raised a lot of questions.

3. Protect appeals. Despite these gigantic efforts, there were cases when Jewish students with a failing score of 2 points were able to appeal and earn the minimum passing score of 3. If undesirable students managed to appeal all the exams, they would only get a half-passing grade at the end and would not be accepted because the department was allowed to choose from the many students that the exams guaranteed would have half-passing scores.

I have only heard about one faculty member who tried to publicly fight the written exam system. It was Vladimir Arnold, and I will tell the story some other time.



  1. Felipe Pait:

    I by no means wish to compare anything that happens in Brazilian academia with the experience of young Soviet scientists.

    I find that often my colleagues prepare exams as follows: 1 easy question, 1 average question, and 1 hard question. That pretty much ensures that the vast majority of the class has grades between 4 and 7 out of 10. There is no hidden agenda or target, besides a general feeling that you need to help the weak and the lazy even if that means they stay weak or lazy; and that very high grades are reserved for faculty, and attained by climbing on the ladder rather than by individual merit. A form of socialist thinking, if you want.

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  4. Sheldon:

    Does not quite make sense to me. I do not doubt they may have had such intentions but I am unclear as to how this arrangement achieves their aim.

    A determined applicant may quibble with #1.

    Please, be more clear, especially about #2.

    The objective is to weed out unwanted students by setting up a sequence of difficult problems.

    If the unwanted applicant passed the written exam, then how exactly would failing all unwanted students during the oral be hidden by their passage of the written?

    Unless, by your final sentence in #2 paragraph means that some tolerable number of unwanted students had to be admitted if they proved themselves during the oral exam.
    In other words, if every unwanted applicant failed during the oral exam, then that would pique suspicion about the oral process. To avoid unwanted inquiry about the oral exam process, some acceptable number of applicants had to be granted a passing score on the oral.

  5. Eliezer:

    I think that the presentation given by Tanya gives a sufficient explanation of the process. Since three of the written questions were routine everyone got them. As one would expect, the extremely difficult question was solved prectically by no one. and the very hard question was solved by very few. Thus admission was decided practically by the oral exam which could be freely engineered on the spot for the desired bias.
    Since the results of written exam were not differentiated there was very little ground for complaint. Of course if there existed a system of legal appeal agains racial/ ethnic discrimination, this could have been attacked by statistics. But since there was no such thing in USSR there vould only be individual appeals, and these could be dismissed since most probably there was no record of the oral questions asked of each student.
    Of course you could check the existance of this bias by conmparing the % of accepted Jewish students then and in other periods, e.g. after Glasnost.

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