True grit: Noncognitive skills provide more complete picture of college applicants

Kristina Bui

You can learn a lot about yourself when you’re faced with a challenge. It turns out college admissions officers can learn a lot too.

The idea that SAT scores and high school grade point averages aren’t enough to create a complete picture of a college applicant is nothing new. These things might measure intelligence, as can IQ tests, but it’s still important to look at an applicant’s noncognitive skills: grittiness.

In psychology, grit is a person’s passion for a long-term goal, a motivation that enables the individual to overcome challenges in order to achieve that goal. Gritty people are resilient, determined and ambitious. They have high endurance and backbone. Grit.

Grit can be used to explain why many top CEOs graduate from state schools instead of Ivy League universities, or why some soldiers in the U.S. military handle post-combat psychological trauma differently from others.

And yet the idea of factoring “noncognitive skills” into the college admissions process should be silly. Something so intangible is too subjective, too soft, to evaluate in people, critics argue.

But at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting, held this weekend, experts seriously discussed considering grit in the admissions process. Universities like Tufts and DePaul already do, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Developed by Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the “Grit Scale” examines diligence and the person’s approach to obstacles using their responses to statements like, “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge” and “Setbacks discourage me.”

The flaw, of course, is that the Grit Scale expects people to be accurate observers of themselves, and how they perceive their own behavior may be different from how others perceive them. But Duckworth issued tests like this in several studies, and, across six studies, found that highly successful people tended to score higher on the scale.

Grittier West Point cadets were more likely to stay after their first summer. Grittier spelling-bee participants tended to out-spell their less determined competitors. Grittier undergraduate students tended to have higher GPAs than their peers.

Students who have grit, Duckworth said in the Chronicle’s article, “are not always as smart as less gritty individuals, but they actually perform beautifully in highly challenging situations where dropout is likely.”

IQ may not be enough to measure achievement, or likelihood of high achievement, Duckworth’s research argues. Grit may not be tied to intelligence at all — just look at students with high GPAs but little direction.

Duckworth warned against assuming that noncognitive measures outweigh cognitive factors.
“It’s not necessarily that IQ doesn’t matter,” she said, “but I think the promising message for students is that we can all work harder, or at least most of us can.”

There isn’t any way to know if including grit in the college admissions process would change retention and graduation rates. But it does offer more insight into college applicants.

When it comes down to the wire, a person has to be more than a resume or an SAT score. When confronted by a challenge, a person is truly tested.

— Kristina Bui is the editor-in-chief for the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @kbui1.