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28 September 2004

The Best of the Bunch

Selection at the University of Heidelberg: the quest for the "best of the best" for the B.Sc. course "molecular biotechnology" — Good prospects for those who make an impression in interviews

The biotechnologists at the Institute of Pharmacy and Biotechnology of the University of Heidelberg have a problem that other departments probably wish they had too. The scientists selecting the next generation of students can choose among the best of the best. Of the 125 applicants who got into the final selection round for the coming winter semester, 80 had an average grade between 1.0 and 1.3 in their Abitur school-leaving exams. The rest were below 2.0. Here, the competition for the best brains takes on an entirely different complexion.

One thing that becomes abundantly clear is that the recruitment of budding scientists is no longer a matter of the Abitur average alone. "We don't just want the best grades, we want interested students," says Katrin Kneféli of the admissions office of the IPMB, whose job it is to coordinate the mammoth application procedures for a subject that has only been in existence for three years. The University of Heidelberg's Faculty of Life Sciences started up its six-term Bachelor course on molecular biotechnology in 2001. The main components of the course centre around research on active substances, bioinformatics and biophysical chemistry. The students have been "hand-picked" right from the outset. Interest in the course is enormous: 450 applicants jostle for one of the 45 places on the course every year.

To separate the wheat from the chaff, the biotechnologists use a painstaking two-tier selection process. First they work out a score for each applicant based on the overall average in the Abitur exam and the grades in relevant subjects achieved in the two years before leaving school. The main focus here is on German, maths and English, together with the scientific subjects (biology, chemistry, physics). The scores thus calculated are used to rank the applicants. Some achievements totted up outside school bring bonus points, for example prizes won in the "Young Researchers" competition or evidence of social commitment.

The 125 best out of this list of applicants go on to the second round of the contest for the small number of places available, receiving an invitation to a selection interview. In the presence of two professors, the applicants are asked to describe their career so far and their motivation for taking the course. Both interviews take 15 minutes each. While they are of course not used to test school knowledge or specific scientific knowledge, the ability to comment on recent issues in biotechnology or genetic engineering does make a good impression.

"There's an immense amount of effort involved in all this," says Kneféli. Both financially and in terms of staff time the strain is considerable. Not only are all 125 applicants invited for their interviews on the same day, meaning that a dozen lecturers have to act as interviewers. The evaluation also has to be done quickly. After all, these young people have not only applied to Heidelberg University. The Institute is up against half-a-dozen other universities offering similar courses. Interest in the brightest and best of these young people has to be evinced in a short space of time, so the biotechnologists evaluate the 250 interviews within one day. Before the interviews each applicant is given a number enabling him/her to find out the results of the selection procedure on the internet a few days later. Two days after the interviews 45 e-mails are on their way to the "happy few", those highly motivated students entitled to call themselves "mobis" in the coming term. After just one week the future students are in possession of written confirmation of admission.

Prof. Dr. Michael Wink, study dean for molecular biotechnology, sums up: "The oral selection process is very taxing but it's worth it — for all of us!"
Alexander R. Wenisch

Inquiries from journalists should be addressed to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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