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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Grit Scores and College Admissions

In an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rebecca Zwick asks whether measures of college applicants’ “grit” (and other character qualities) should figure in admissions decisions. From there, she offers several arguments for caution (such efforts are not always benign, character traits are difficult to measure, and they may not even be malleable). Her essay begins:

Grit is the four-letter word that colleges want to hear, according to a website offering advice to applicants. Grit, which encompasses characteristics like perseverance, determination, and the ability to delay gratification, is one of many so-called “noncognitive” and “character” factors promoted as a way to acquire a more complete picture of applicants than can be obtained through test scores and high-school grades alone.

A few paragraphs later, she asks, “How … would admissions officials really know which applicants were the most persevering?” Good question. Grit can contradict appearances. If you fill your application essay with grit keywords, you may actually have given in to a wish to please (not the grittiest of wishes or surrenders). There’s something gritty about taking your grit with salt.

Also, people who persevere may look like they’re giving up along the way. Some tennis champions throw fits on the courts; this does not make them ungritty. Some math students scribble out their errors, walk away for a little while, and then come back with a solution.

So instead of favoring gravel (see the etymology of “grit”), admissions officers can look for fruits and leaves. They can consider admitting a student who has accomplished good things and is eager to learn more. That’s simplistic, I know–but must every promising student have an “obstacles-I-overcame” story to tell? Some people overcome obstacles without realizing it; the chestnut tree does not enumerate its gnarls.

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