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Are You Gritty Enough for College?

Top of the class. Perfect achievement test scores. What more proof does a university need that you would be the ideal member of their student body?

In today’s competitive admissions, many American schools aim to see beyond the numbers. Grades and SAT scores only reveal the surface of a student’s ability to succeed in a college setting, where a variety of appealing distractions and complex challenges test even the most academically-talented young people. Skills that help students truly succeed at university and beyond include curiosity, creativity, integrity, leadership, the ability to work with others, and—the hot new favorite—grit.

What is grit?
Likening it to initiative and perseverance, growing research heralds grit as a key component to a student’s success in college. Grittier students face obstacles with determination and focus, and are not discouraged by setbacks. Kids with grit are in it for the long haul, and will put in sustained effort to reach their goals.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania assert that grit enabled the tortoise to beat the hare. In a 2011 article in Wired magazine, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Lee Duckworth describes a variety of research into aspects of grit, including a study of spelling bee contestants. Conclusion: The winners studied and practiced. A lot. Gritty people succeed through deliberate practice to acquire skills, says Duckworth, who developed a simple, self-reporting method called the Short Grit Scale to help measure a person’s long-term stamina and focus.

While Duckworth’s test is designed to support research at the University of Pennsylvania, universities across the United States are exploring a variety of similar methods to measure grit in potential students. Based on decades of research by the University of Maryland’s Professor Emeritus of Education William Sedlacek, Oregon State University developed a brief questionnaire called the Insight Résumé to assess an applicant’s noncognitive skills. These include a gritty “preference for long-range goals to immediate needs,” as well as self-confidence balanced with a realistic self-appraisal.

For several years, the Educational Testing Service has promoted its Personal Potential Index to help graduate schools evaluate an applicant’s ability to succeed. The Web-based tool aims to measure attributes such as creativity, teamwork, ethics, organizational skills and resilience. While the skills themselves sound worthy, some question the ability of any standardized assessment to get to the core question: Can this applicant survive, thrive and, in the end, contribute something positive to an educational community?

Why holistic admissions?
At Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Missouri, Director of College Counseling David Burke describes holistic admissions as a way for colleges to see beyond the numbers. “There’s a recognition in admissions circles that objective measures are helpful, but only to a point,” he says. “Those subjective skills—leadership, problem-solving, teamwork, grit—after you’ve worked somewhere for more than a week, you know that these are as important as native intelligence to getting something done!”

Burke recently finished a four-year term on the board of the Common Application, where he helped design essay questions that would reveal student grittiness. Along with teacher recommendations and interviews, good essays help admissions staff discover the noncognitive qualities they seek. Burke explains, “Colleges want to know a student’s story. Maybe the mother has to commute an hour to work every day and so the student has to get dinner on the table for the younger sister. Maybe the student took over the Spanish club, and turned it...into an organization with 30 kids tutoring ESL students at a neighboring school.” These stories reveal information about the character of a student—information that colleges want to know.

As most colleges and universities continue to use more traditional methods, such as essays, for understanding a student’s nonnumerical qualities, the jury’s out on the new methodologies for assessing grit. The growing body of research holds promise, leading educators and researchers to consider the next question: How can grit be nurtured?

Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.