The Quiet Revolution: Looking Beyond Grades and Test Scores

Written by Lisa Bleich

We all hear about kids with perfect grades and test scores who are denied admissions at select colleges and conversely kids who were “not as strong” getting in. This phenomenon will continue as colleges look beyond grades and test scores to increase access.

Allison Cooper Chisolm, CEO of Ivey College Consulting and a former admissions officer at select colleges, led a fascinating discussion the 2016 HECA (Higher Education Consulting Association) conference in Philadelphia.  She calls it the Quiet Revolution in college admissions whereby admissions officers realize that non-cognitive skills predict long-term success better than test scores (which only predict first year success).

So what are these non-cognitive skills and how do you demonstrate them to colleges?

noncognitive factors 2016

Grit, this term has been around for the past five or so years, but Angela Duckworth the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, made it truly buzzworthy.  The idea behind grit is that a student can dig his or her heels in and stick with a task or goal and do whatever it takes to get it done.  This is important because college is hard and the grittier the student, the more likely he or she will graduate in four years.  The CommonApp prompt about failure tries to get at this ability to rebound.

Self-Control, can you keep yourself from blurting things out, taking a nap in the middle of student center, manage your drinking or recognize when no, means no?  Students’ ability to manage self-control demonstrates that they will contribute to campus in a positive, not negative manner. This may be reflected in your letters of recommendation about your behavior in the classroom and in your activities.

Growth Mindset do you believe you can get smarter if you work at it?  A fixed mindset doesn’t believe you can get better.  “I suck at math.” “I’m not a good writer.”  Having these fixed ideas prevents students from pushing beyond their comfort zone, whereas a growth mindset believes that with hard work, you can get better at something.  The CommonApp failure prompt also wants you to talk about what you learned from the experience.  This learning is key to showing a growth mindset.

Positive Self-Image  Do you feel generally good about yourself.  A positive self-image empowers students to feel they are worthy and can and should take advantage of opportunities. This can be reflected in how you present yourself within your essays. 

Realistic Self-Appraisal But not to the point of cockiness!  Colleges want students who understand who they are and where they can contribute.  Can you clearly articulate your strengths and weaknesses?  If you push yourself too far beyond your abilities, you may crash and burn, not enough, you may not grow enough. 

Ability to lead, cooperate and collaborate.  You are not considered a functional leader unless you can also cooperate and collaborate.  The definition of leadership has expanded beyond just being the titular head of something.  Instead, colleges want students who can work well with others to achieve a goal.  On the positive side, this means that even if you do not have the title, you can still be a leader and demonstrate this trait.  Perhaps you are a person in your group who serves as mediator between friends to move the group forward.  Perhaps you thought of a creative way to overcome an obstacle to make something happen.

Community involvement. This can be at any level, family, school, town, interest group.   Colleges just want to see that you have played a role within some community.  Both Michigan and Tufts ask a question to get at your role within a given community.  The new UC prompts also have a question around this: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  

Openness/Tolerance   Diversity on campus and in the world is real and growing.  As colleges continue to increase access and reflect the greater world, they want students who are open and tolerant to a wide range of people.  It’s no longer whether or not you yourself are diverse, but whether or not you are open and tolerant of those who are different from you or welcome that sort of environment.

Ability to Handle System/the “Isms” Students will all need to learn how to deal and handle bureaucracy or group mindset.  Do you organize a protest?  Do you go home if someone says something you don’t agree with or find offensive?  Given the discussions and protests on numerous campuses around these issues, this trait has become increasingly important.

Availability of a Strong Support System/Network Colleges want to know that students can create and draw from a strong support network.  Will you reach out for help?  Will you have friends and family whom you can talk to if you are upset?  This support network is crucial to long-term success.

The supplemental questions or short answer questions asked by colleges are a good guide to determine which non cognitive trait they are assessing.  The new University of California application has changed dramatically from essays to “personal insight questions” to get at these traits directly.  The CommonApp and Coalition for Access essay prompts also attempt to pull examples of these traits out of students.

So as you share your stories with colleges, think about which of these traits you possess and how best to illustrate them through your writing.

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