Posted on August 21, 2009

Adding Personality to the College Admissions Mix

Robert Tomsho, Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2009

For years, colleges have asked applicants for their grade-point averages and standardized test scores.

Now, schools like Boston College, DePaul University and Tufts University also want to measure prospective students’ personalities.

Using recently developed evaluation systems, these schools and others are aiming to quantify so-called noncognitive traits such as leadership, resilience and creativity. 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.

Big nonprofits that administer standardized admissions tests, including the College Board, the Educational Testing Service and ACT Inc., are also getting in on the trend. ETS, for instance, which administers the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, recently unveiled a “personal potential index” designed for schools that want to replace traditional letters of recommendation for prospective grad students with a standardized rating.

“There is quite a bit of demand for these [noncognitive] instruments,” says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association of College Admissions Counseling. Educators say the use of such assessments is likely to grow as some schools search for new tools to recruit more minority and low-income students. At the same time, budget pressures are forcing public institutions in states like California and Florida to find new tools for selecting incoming students.

{snip} Some legal advocates also say the assessments could stir affirmative-action controversy if they are used solely to give a boost to minorities’ admissions chances.

Many colleges have asked personality-related questions for years as part of the admissions process, but the results were seldom scored in a standardized, numerical way, says William Sedlacek, a retired University of Maryland education professor whose “noncognitive questionnaire” has been used by various colleges and by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to award scholarships. He says such assessments are reliable and that if students and counselors figure out how to manipulate them they will have to be revised. “Right now, these things are useful,” Dr. Sedlacek says.

Boston’s Torch Scholars

Boston’s Northeastern University uses noncognitive assessment for its Torch Scholars Program, which is designed to identify applicants who show leadership potential or have overcome adversity but probably wouldn’t qualify for the university based solely on their high-school grades and test scores.


Simona Vareikaite, 20, a Northeastern junior majoring in criminal justice, said her high-school grades were good but she didn’t do well on the SAT. Although she found her college’s personality assessment to be “weird,” it gave her a boost in the competition for the Torch scholarship. “The whole process kind of opened a new opportunity for me,” says Ms. Vareikaite, who after immigrating from Lithuania started cleaning offices as an 11-year-old to help support her family.


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.

Michele Sandlin, OSU’s admissions director, says the university implemented the assessment in 2004 in part to help it attract and keep minority, low-income and other applicants who don’t quite have the grades and test scores OSU generally looks for. Low scores on the Insight Resume aren’t used to disqualify students with adequate grades and test scores, she says.


The “personal potential index” recently unveiled by ETS has been piloted over the past three years in an Arizona State University effort to get more minority students to take the GRE and attend graduate school. {snip}

And the College Board, which administers the SAT, is working with researchers at Michigan State University to develop a questionnaire designed to measure applicants’ judgment and behavior by asking them how they would respond to various situations, such as a group research project where one student doesn’t contribute. {snip}

Gaming the System

Not everyone thinks such assessments are a good idea. Relying on applicants’ writing about themselves won’t always result in reliable information, says Howard Gardner, a Harvard education professor and author who has studied human intelligence.{snip}

And legal-advocacy groups that have fought racial preferences in college admissions say the new assessment systems could face court challenges if white and minority students are measured differently. “They can’t apply them in a discriminatory fashion or adopt them solely for the purpose of increasing minorities in their classes,” says Michael Rosman, general counsel for the Center for Individual Rights. The group represented plaintiffs before the Supreme Court, which in a pair of 2003 decisions upheld the use of minority status to boost the chances of an applicant in college admissions decisions, but ruled against points-based admissions formulas and said applicants should be considered case-by-case.