November 28, 2010

High-school smarty-pants may not be best collegian

A Tufts study finds wisdom and creativity are better predictors of success.

By ROBERT J. STERNBERG Special to The Washington Post

Wait list. That was the outcome of my application to Yale. I was eventually admitted, and I later had an opportunity that very few applicants ever have: I got to find out why I had been wait-listed.

My first job after college was in the Yale admissions office, and one day I sneaked into the attic where old records were kept and read my interview report, which described me as having a "flaky personality." I did not read the rest of my admissions file -- I felt too guilty -- so I cannot say whether it was the interviewer's assessment or some other perceived deficiency that consigned me to the wait list. I do know that when I finally got in, it was through the intervention of the admissions officer for my area, who saw something special in me.

Most students don't benefit from this kind of intervention; SAT scores and GPAs are much of what make or break a college application. Yet, over the course of my years in the Yale admissions office, I was continually surprised by how many of the students we accepted had sky-high SAT scores but seemed to lack basic practical and creative skills, whereas others with more modest scores were stunning successes at Yale, both academically and personally.

Great schools don't always produce great people. But it's not just what happens after students arrive on campus that's the problem. and large, our best schools don't always pick the best people in the first place. Many students who appear to have tremendous potential at age 17, based on their SAT scores and GPAs, don't look so wonderful 20 years later.

An executive at a major investment bank, looking back on his 25 years on Wall Street, told me that SAT scores predicted quite well who would be good analysts -- that is, they predicted the technical skills needed to evaluate investments. What they did not signal, he said, is who could envision where various markets are going, to see larger trends and to make decisions that go beyond individual stock or bond picks.

We can do a much better job of college admissions if we start thinking about student abilities differently. We should assess and value analytical, creative and practical skills and wisdom, not just the ability to memorize or do well on tests. And we should admit people on the basis of their potential for leadership and active citizenship.

Many admissions offices try to do this already, through essays and the like, but their applications nonetheless remain anchored on test scores and grades. This is in part because scores and grades can be quantified and therefore get more weight than more abstract, seemingly "fluffy" qualities.

There is, however, a way to test these other important skills, and get this: The kids we select using this new method, which puts more emphasis on things other than GPAs? They'll have higher GPAs in college. I know, because this is what has happened at Tufts University.


"Use one of the following topics to create a short story: a. The Spam Filter, b. Seventeen Minutes Ago . . . ; c. Two by Two; d. Facebook; e. Now There's the Rub ; f. No Whip Half-Caf Latte; g. The Eleventh Commandment."

This was one of seven questions that appeared on the Tufts undergraduate application for the class of 2013. How did it get there? The short answer is that it was crafted by a clever group of Tufts admissions officers, led by Dean of Admissions Lee Coffin.

The long answer goes back a few years. I became a psychology professor at Yale and in 1997 proposed a theory of successful intelligence, based on the idea that people are meaningfully intelligent only to the extent that they can formulate and achieve their goals by synthesizing their creative, analytical and practical skills and their wisdom.

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