Plan, persist and perform for college success

What aspects of background, personality or achievement predict high grades in college? Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham analyzes a meta-analysis of research on three categories of predictors: three demographic factors (age, sex, socioeconomic status); five traditional measures of cognitive ability or prior academic achievement (intelligence measures, high school GPA, SAT or ACT, A level points), and 42 non-intellectual measures of personality, motivation, learning strategies, approach to learning and psychosocial contextual influences. (He’s got a chart of all the factors.)

As they put the data together, the most important predictors of college grade point average are: your grades in high school, your score on the SAT or ACT, the extent to which you plan for and target specific grades, and your ability to persist in challenging academic situations.

“Broad personality traits, most motivation factors and learning strategies matter less than I would have guessed,” Willingham writes. Demographic and psychosocial factors and “approach to learning” didn’t matter at all.


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  1. Just recently, I read a couple of articles on preparing low-SES kids for college. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where to find either of them, but I did think they had some good advice. Part of it dealt with expectations; what profs expect from students (language, behavior, academics) and part dealt with various campus resources (tutoring, financial, jobs etc) and how/when to use them. The most interesting part dealt with students’ dealings with family and community – who may not be very supportive of college. Several of the comments from the article specifically said that they had to pull away from family, friends and boy/girlfriends who kept them from making a serious commitment to college responsibilities – rather sad.

    • Very sad. And I’ve seen it even at the high school level. Certain subcultures in this country (particlarly the black and hispanic ones) simply loathe college and education for some reason… They view it as a waste of time, and selfish. Unbelievable, but true, and sad.

  2. File this one under “Duh!” What does it take to succeed in not just college, but in ANYTHING? Planning, persistance, and preparation, which leads to good performance. Duh!