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The 4-Letter Word That Everybody’s Talking About

Denver — Here at this giant gathering of admissions officers and high-school counselors, I keep hearing the same word over and over. People have mentioned it during sessions, uttered it over coffee, and probed its meaning in conversations. The word is “grit.”

It’s as good a word as any for the determination that many educators now associate with student success. Grit, as described by some researchers, is the habit of overcoming challenges, of learning from mistakes instead of being defeated by them. One administrator described it as “that fire in the belly.”

It’s long been said that test scores and grade-point averages don’t tell you the whole story about an applicant, but these days there’s growing interest in ways of measuring—and improving—student’s “noncognitive” skills, as speakers here at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting attested.

Some institutions, such as Tufts and DePaul Universities, have incorporated noncognitive assessments into their evaluations of applicants. And as several admissions officers here predicted, the future of college admissions will include more—perhaps many more—of those measures.

After all, we’re learning more and more about why students succeed or fail. During a discussion on Friday, Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, described her research on aspects of achievement that have to do with effort, rather than with talent or ability.

In short, Ms. Duckworth explained, a person’s IQ may not be enough to explain life outcomes. In turn, the conventional measures of achievement may or may not match what’s going on inside a student’s head. Haven’t you ever met an Ivy League student with a sterling GPA who just so happened to lack passion, curiosity, and a sense of purpose?

Ms. Duckworth has developed a 10-question “Grit Scale” that asks about diligence, goal-completion, and dealing with setbacks. Students who display grit, she said, “are not always as smart as less gritty individuals, but they actually perform beautifully in highly challenging situations where dropout is likely.”

Years ago, when I asked admissions officers about noncognitive measures, I sometimes heard a chuckle. Some described such measures as too soft or too subjective for use in evaluating large numbers of applicants.

That suspicion seems to be easing, however. As more independent schools and nonprofit organizations are using research on noncognitive skills to help prepare students for college, alternative ways of measuring students’ potential are becoming more familiar in admissions circles. One dean was downright giddy about the prospect of incorporating Ms. Duckworth’s Grit Scale into his admissions process (with the approval of his president, of course).

In the end, embracing new measures of potential doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning traditional ones. Ms. Duckworth cautioned educators against assuming that noncognitive measures were inherently at odds with cognitive measures. “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, at least most of us can.”

In other words, when a student struggles, it’s not necessarily the case that he or she lacks the intelligence to succeed. “An IQ problem—that’s not what makes schoolwork hard,” Ms. Duckworth said. “Effort is hard, confusion is hard, boredom is hard.”

And “hard” is not the same thing as “can’t.”

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