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24 September 2004

179 Hurdles for Would-Be Psychologists

Studying psychology as a subsidiary subject at the University of Heidelberg requires intelligence and a whole lot of answers — Institute of Psychology has organised aptitude tests since 1997

Visible strain, frowns, scowls, flushed cheeks — the tension is almost tangible. In the upper rows some are fanning themselves with their answer papers, one young woman is nervously chewing her pencil. "That's it! Time's up!" Deep breaths and the rustling of paper everywhere. After 90 minutes the test is over, a test designed to assess the aptitude of the would-be students and one that also decides on their futures. In lecture hall 13 the psychologists of the University of Heidelberg are out to identify the best among their many candidates.

Merissa from Bonn, Anne from Fulda and Keren from Frankfurt are all keen to belong to the happy few. With their A Levels just behind them, these self-styled amateur psychologists want to make a profession out of their inclinations. They got to know each other on the way here and now they stand outside the lecture hall chattering. No trace of nervousness in the face of the imminent aptitude test. "No, I'm just keyed up," says Merissa. But when they are told what percentage of the candidates will be accepted it puts a momentary damper on their spirits. Maths is one of their strong points, so these three young women have no difficulty working out just how likely it is that they will be among the best of the bunch.

456 school-leavers from all over Germany have applied to study psychology as a subsidiary subject at Heidelberg University in the winter term 2004/2005. As there are only 60 places to be had, the principle on which access to the university is granted is quite simply open competition. The Heidelberg psychologists have been organising aptitude tests since 1997. Initially they were a mixture of written tests and lengthy interviews. As they themselves see it, this makes the psychologists very early champions of the elite principle for recruiting new students officially promoted by Baden-Württemberg's ministry of higher education.

According to Stuttgart's latest regulations on admission to university, subjects with local admission restrictions have to select their students on the basis of certain criteria, one of which can be a test. Only the most gifted and motivated are to be allowed to study. Today, 90 percent of the young people studying psychology as a subsidiary subject are selected in this way. In the meantime the Institute has given up the idea of interviews. Professor Manfred Amelang has been one of those in charge of the selection procedure since 1997. He says interviews are too time-consuming.

The test used by the Heidelberg psychologists is the most searching one of its kind organised at the University, alongside the procedures employed by the molecular biologists. It is not designed to test for scientific knowledge, as this will be imparted in the course of study at the university. Nor is it a re-run of the school-leaving exams. Instead, the psychologists test the candidates' intelligence: social, numerical, verbal. They are asked to do sums in their head, form word pairs and complete picture stories designed to test how well the budding psychologists can assess and predict human emotions. A total of 179 questions in 90 minutes.

"Some of them are pretty nasty," Moritz Heene admits. The lecturer is one of the team of five who have designed the tests; a few of the multiple-choice questions would have him biting his nails as well. The level of the tests is high enough to reflect a response spectrum that is as authentic as possible. Only about five percent of the examinees actually manage to answer all the questions. "And there's no way you can really prepare," says Heene. Ordinary IQ tests available in book form are only a very rough guide on how to shape up to the Heidelberg test.

So it's not surprising that Merissa, Anne and Keren's cheeks are flushed when they hand in the test sheets. "Not nearly enough time," they all complain. "If you spend too much time thinking about one question you can forget the others." This is all part of the concept. The questions are arranged thematically, the time for answering them is limited. When Heene calls out "Time's up!" after two, five or eight minutes, it's time to move on to the next set.

While the aptitude test does not make A Level results completely superfluous, it does mean that they are no longer the sole gauge for admission. Apart from the A Level average, the psychologists also include the grades for German, maths and English in their assessment of the candidates. Grades and test results all have equal weight in the final ranking of the applicants. Those at the top of the list can then begin their studies at the Institute this coming term.

Will Merissa, Anne and Keren be among them? "I can't really say how well I did," says Anne. "I've no idea whether it was good enough." Just in case, all three young women have applied to other universities all over Germany as well. "No one else sets you an aptitude test," they report. But all of them would be "over the moon" if they could come to Heidelberg in October. "Studying here is something really special," says Merissa.
Alexander R. Wenisch

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Manfred Amelang
Institute of Psychology
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/547328 or -9
fax: 06221/547325

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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