David Holmes: Colleges should consider ‘grit’ when deciding admissions


January 9, 2014 

We are in the midst of the college admissions season, and it is a stressful time for thousands of high school seniors in Idaho and across the nation. The numbers matter a great deal, especially scores on the SAT or ACT. With so many applying to college, standardized test scores are a practical sorting mechanism for colleges with tons of applications as well as a presumed means to assess merit in an objective way. There are several problems, however, with the college admissions system.

First, there is the stress placed on students who do not score well on these tests but have the grades, character traits, and talent to excel at an excellent college. Thousands of students with this profile receive bad news from the college of their choice. Second, a large body of research shows that these kinds of tests have a weak correlation with success in college and in the working world. Grade-point average and other factors, such as old-fashioned grit, are much better predictors of success.

As a practical matter, it makes sense for schools to do what they can to prepare students to do as well as possible on standardized tests. This is the prevailing system and cannot be ignored. Also, students must master the basic knowledge and required analytical skills of a college preparatory curriculum.

Yet, there is a growing appreciation of the importance of character strengths, such as grit. Angela Duckworth, of the University of Pennsylvania, is the leading proponent and researcher into non-cognitive factors in success. Her TED talk on grit in April 2013 caught attention across the nation. Recently, she received a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” for her work.

Numerous secondary schools, public and private, are paying attention to gritlike factors in educational success. The Community School in Blaine County is participating with thirteen other schools in a Duckworth-led national study of character strengths, including grit, optimism, zest, self-control, curiosity, and social intelligence. The surveys will help us make the case for personal qualities that are ignored or under-recognized by colleges in their vetting of applicants.

By establishing valid and feasible methods for assessing character strengths, our goal is to reshape the way college admissions offices assess candidates. Not only will this assure that colleges accept students with authentic potential for success, but these new assessments will open the door to youths who are “wired for success” in college and life but are too often ignored by colleges. The college admissions system is long overdue for fundamental change, and thousands of “gritty” young men and women are poised to take advantage of a new approach.

David Holmes, PhD, is Head of School at Community School, Sun Valley.

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