Getting into college on personality

Colleges are using “personality scores” to decide who gets in, not just grades, test scores, extracurriculars and essays, reports Robert Tomsho in the Wall Street Journal. New “evaluation systems” claim to “quantify so-called noncognitive traits such as leadership, resilience and creativity,” Tomsho writes.

Colleges say such assessments are boosting the admissions chances for some students who might not have qualified based solely on grades and traditional test scores. The noncognitive assessments also are being used to screen out students believed to be at a higher risk of dropping out, and to identify newly admitted students who might need extra tutoring.

Testing companies are jumping in to offer “new tools to recruit more minority and low-income students.”

Boston’s Northeastern University looks for leadership potential and ability to overcome adversity to choose Torch Scholars, who have lower SAT scores (by about 200 points) and grades than their classmates. Northeastern says 90% of Torch students make it from their freshman to sophomore years, close to the university-wide average of 92%.

DePaul asked borderline applicants for 100 words on “a goal you have set for yourself and how you plan to accomplish it. How would you compare your educational interests and goals with other students in your high school?”

At Oregon State University, every would-be undergraduate must now provide 100-word answers to six questions that are part of what the school calls its “Insight Resume.” One question, designed to measure applicants’ capacity to deal with adversity, asks them to describe the most significant challenge they have faced and the steps they took to address it. Another asks them to describe their experiences facing or witnessing discrimination and how they responded. Every answer is reviewed by two admissions officers and scored on a 1-to-3-point scale.

How does this differ from asking applicants to write an essay? I’m not sure. Perhaps if an applicant isn’t smart enough to find an acceptable adversity, they’re not smart enough for college.

Critics say students will learn how to game the system. You want a motivated, resilient, diligent leader? C’est moi!

About Joanne


  1. I’d say that if your SAT scores are 200 points lower than the class average, you should choose another school. This is just another chapter in the ongoing worship of “diversity”, at any cost.

    About 20 years ago, a black columnist wrote that his child’s college search was limited, by parental decree, to schools where her test scores put her within one standard deviation from the mean for the previous class. I think that was good advice then and good advice now.

  2. This is another example of why buyer’s should beware. Don’t incur debt or pay the extreme tution costs at institutions that you’re unlikely to matriculate with a credible (hard) degree in 4 years.

  3. Why would we believe that the typical college admissions officer knows enough about either leadership or creativity to evaluate these traits in others?

    I doubt that either strong leaders or highly creative individuals tend to choose careers in this particular field.

  4. Good point about admissions people. Many years ago, I remember reading an article about MIT in which a number of professors from different departments expressed concern that recent admits were weaker than in previous years. They were looking for brilliant people in their specialty; the admissions staff were looking for well-rounded students.

    I saw this play out for a classmate of my own kid, in a high school which typically sent two kids to MIT every year. The classmate was admittedly brilliant in math/physics, but had a B or two outside of math/science. He didn’t get in, but one of the two who was admitted had straight As, but not the level of sheer math/physics talent.

    I think that it is likely that admissions people are not only unlikely to be strong leaders or highly creative, but that they are also unlikely to have been serious, highly-achieving students.

    I think that is also likely to be true of those who populate ed schools, both as faculty and as students. Never having been serious scholars themselves, they value other things more. To me, that possibility is just one more reason to close all ed schools.

  5. Richard Nieporent says:

    This is just another way to game the system. They know the percentage of minorities they want to admit to their schools and they look for a method that will achieve that goal. What, for example, does leadership have to do with being a good student?

    Torch scholars have average SAT scores about 200 points below the typical Northeastern student, says Philomena Mantella, senior vice president of enrollment management.

    Add Torch “scholar” to your list of oxymorons.

  6. Anything to avoid looking at intellect and academic ability.

  7. I have generally crushed standardized tests during my life, in part because I prepared /studied really hard for them . I just took a Boards (medicine) re cert where I didn’t study. I’m a little worried whether I passed. Still, this is a bit like the NYT columnists decrying the lack of a “leadership” test on the RI firefighters test.

    Evidently, intelligence or even knowledge can’t be measured, but other stuff can.

  8. I find this so odd. I had killer SATs, back in the 70s, not so killer grades, and I got into an Ivy because I was (a) female and (b) from a Western state that didn’t send many kids east. I did better than fine–Phi Beta Kappa as a Jr., etc. Would my alma mater take me today? No way.

    My son, with killer SATs, long on personality, short on grades and teacher approval, could go to community college, but is going to Central European University in Budapest, instead. Why? He’s not a minority, he has no victim story, we’re not living in our car. He did a year in Hungary after being booted from his crunchy-granola high school (bad attitude) as an AFS student, then did a year at a California community college.

    Would a US school take him? Maybe, but I doubt it.

  9. Looks like momof4 was correct:

    “Mantella holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s of social work degree from Syracuse University, and a doctorate in educational administration from Michigan State University.”

    Blast! Wish I could exchange my hard science degrees for Dr. Mantella’s.

  10. –I think that it is likely that admissions people are not only unlikely to be strong leaders or highly creative, but that they are also unlikely to have been serious, highly-achieving students.

    In MIT’s case, the head of admissions was not merely not serious nor high achieving, but an actual fraud:

    Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became well known for urging stressed-out students competing for elite colleges to calm down and stop trying to be perfect. Yesterday she admitted that she had fabricated her own educational credentials, and resigned after nearly three decades at M.I.T. Officials of the institute said she did not have even an undergraduate degree.

    “I misrepresented my academic degrees when I first applied to M.I.T. 28 years ago and did not have the courage to correct my résumé when I applied for my current job or at any time since,” Ms. Jones said in a statement posted on the institute’s Web site. “I am deeply sorry for this and for disappointing so many in the M.I.T. community and beyond who supported me, believed in me, and who have given me extraordinary opportunities.”

    Ms. Jones said that she would not make any other public comment “at this personally difficult time” and that she hoped her privacy would be respected.

    Ms. Jones, 55, originally from Albany, had on various occasions represented herself as having degrees from three upstate New York institutions: Albany Medical College, Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In fact, she had no degrees from any of those places, or anywhere else, M.I.T. officials said.

  11. Unfortunately for me, my suburban, white bread upbringing didn’t allow me to dredge up many of these “overcoming adversity” stories. Poor me… I didn’t get picked for the school musical in 6th grade…

  12. But Marilee Jones was actually very good at her job. MIT should have kept her on.

  13. If schools were really interested in scholastic ability, the SAT I/SAT II/AP/IB test scores would do the job. Clearly, they are interested in lots of other things. Never mind that geeky student X might discover the next important vaccine or that dweeby student Y might develop a new non-fossil fuel… even if they didn’t do all their worksheets while being bored in high school…

  14. It is all about $$$$$$

  15. This is the sort of thing that worries me, partly because I think the more geeky scientists and inventors getting top-notch educations, the better, and I wonder how many highly-skilled but not well-rounded kids are going to miss an education that could really benefit them — and the rest of us — tremendously because of the contributions they could make.

    And it doubly worries me as a mom whose 9 year-old son is scheduled for neuropyschological testing (i.e., Autism/Asperger’s). Unless things change radically in the next 8 years, he’ll be in big trouble, because even if his grades are OK, he shows every sign now of being unable to write a self-reflective essay of any kind, least of all a suck-up bullshitty one.

    Anyway, this is an old post, so I’m hardly furthering a discussion, but right now my best hope is for him (and kids like him) to declare that the disability accomodation he requires is exemption from the essay requirement. Ha! Maybe that’s what every kid should do who butts up against the “well-roundedness” mantra.