Workplace

Want the best software engineers? Stop looking at Stanford and Berkeley.

Swarthmore and UVA grads are among those scoring higher than students from elite institutions on the widely used SAT-style test for software engineers.

Swarthmore College

CodeSignal's new report draws on just one data point: how people perform on its standardized assessment of the General Coding Framework.

Photo: Swarthmore College/Ian Bradshaw

It should feel safe to assume that the average computer science graduate from Stanford University would ace a coding proficiency test like the one given to entry-level software engineers at companies like Square. Most of them do. But on average, they are not the best of the best.

Stanford CS grads don’t even make the top 10 list for high scorers on the General Coding Assessment, the coding proficiency test designed by CodeSignal and given to software applicants at most major tech companies. Neither do those from the University of California, Berkeley, which is tied with Stanford for the second-best engineering school in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, behind MIT.

Ranked ahead of Stanford (at slot 13 on this year’s CodeSignal list) and Berkeley (17) are schools like the University of Virginia, Charlottesville (1) and Swarthmore College (10), neither of which are famous for their CS degree programs. Twelve schools on CodeSignal’s list don’t appear anywhere on the U.S. News and World Report’s list of top 30 computer science schools, including Ivy League institutions like Yale (3) and state schools like the University of Colorado at Boulder (11), the State University of New York at Stony Brook (22) and Arizona State University (29).

Meta, Robinhood, Square, Uber, Instacart, Zoom and Asana are among the companies that have used or currently use CodeSignal’s assessments in hiring. CodeSignal creates these ranking reports each year as part of an effort to convince these companies and the rest of the industry that recruiting primarily from universities with prestigious reputations in software engineering is an inefficient use of resources. Elite universities like Stanford produce graduates with generally high scores, but the report aims to show that plenty of other schools train students who are just as competitive, if not more so, according to CodeSignal CEO and co-founder Tigran Sloyan.

“You could find a whole bunch of amazing software engineers at the University of Central Missouri, which graduates more CS grads than Stanford and Harvard combined. Companies spend millions and millions of dollars chasing grads from the Ivy Leagues, and they don’t even recruit sometimes from the other schools,” Sloyan said. “In this incredibly competitive market, it’s crazy.”

The tech industry’s racial, ethnic and socioeconomic makeup has remained relatively stagnant over the last several years. For tech companies that profess a desire to change that, recruiting from schools beyond the stereotypically elite institutions might be one of the most straightforward ways to go about it. “Talent is everywhere; you’ve just got to be able to look for it directly by measuring skill set versus by relying on, ‘Oh, we hear people from this university are good,’” Sloyan said.

Unlike traditional college rankings, which calculate degree program success based on attributes such as graduation rates, job placement rates, reputation among peers and funding, the CodeSignal report draws on just one data point: how people perform on the company’s standardized assessment of the General Coding Framework.

Sloyan argues that the industry’s widespread adoption of CodeSignal’s assessment has created a statistically significant data set that companies and job applicants should trust. Students and entry-level engineers everywhere grind in preparation for this test, and all types of tech companies use it to screen their applicants. More than 160,000 engineers have taken CodeSignal’s assessment, and the company estimates that more than 50% of graduating CS students take the test. Most college computer science programs teach algorithmic problem-solving skills, and the test is designed to assess those skills rather than knowledge of a specific language like Java or Python.

Students applying for competitive tech jobs train themselves on practice problems and tests that emulate the assessments these companies use, trying to estimate what score they might be able to get. Subreddits like r/csMajors are loaded with questions like “How high of a codesignal general score should I aim for to get an interview at Square?” and “How hard is the Facebook codesignal assessment for University grad role?”

CodeSignal scores range from 600-849, and the company says that scores above 800 indicate excellent problem-solving skills equivalent to the 84th percentile. The university ranking list is based on how many test-takers from each school score above 800 out of the total pool of people from that school. An impressive 43% of test-takers from UVA Charlottesville scored above 800 in 2022, while Swarthmore’s 22% sits just above Stanford and at about the same level as the California Institute of Technology.

At Swarthmore, a tiny liberal arts college, the computer science program will graduate just over 50 students this year and managed to best not only Stanford and Berkeley, but the Georgia Institute of Technology and other massive engineering institutions. Swarthmore CS graduates are excelling in more than just the CodeSignal test; at the North American championship for the International Collegiate Programming Competition last year, a Swarthmore team placed fourth, becoming the only liberal arts college in the United States to qualify for the world championship.

Andrew Danner, the college’s computer science department chair, speculated that the school’s focus on algorithmic problem-solving over teaching specific languages might explain its success.

“Our intro course, it’s taught in Python, but the goal here is not to teach you Python, it’s to teach you enough Python so that you can solve some computational problems with it. We do that again in our intermediate courses too where we switch the language and teach them C and C++ so that they see a variety of different languages throughout their career,” Danner said. “There are also a lot of schools, you come in and you start learning Java, you do Java your entire time, you know that language extremely well and maybe do not know how to adapt to other languages.”

Computer science is the most rapidly expanding degree program for undergraduates at almost every school that offers it. At Swarthmore, it’s now one of the top three degree programs despite the fact the school doesn’t actively recruit students focused on CS. Because of the school’s small size, students have certain advantages compared to those at larger schools with famous degree programs. While a student at an elite research university might take a 300-person CS class with teaching assistants, the largest class at Swarthmore is around 60 students, and everyone will learn from the professor.

“I think debunking that myth that the best people only go to the top schools is such an important message for everyone: for companies, for parents, for students,” Sloyan said. “Students get it into their head, too. When you get it into your head, ‘There’s no way I can be great,’ that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s practice, dedication that gets you to that skill level.”

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