February 28, 2013

Evaluating Noncognitive Skills in Admissions

Every year, the admissions officers have the tough task of evaluating applicants for admittance. Officers are not only seeking out candidates who have good grades and test scores, but who also have certain unmeasurable traits that will make them assets to their school. These unmeasurable traits, also known as noncognitive or metacognitive traits, are where knowledge and motivation meet. Noncognitive traits include emotional intelligence, confidence, curiosity, study skills, and creativity, among others.

Why should noncognitive traits be important in admissions? Think of it this way; one student gets an “A” on a French test by cramming the night before and quickly memorizing vocabulary words. Another student gets an “A” on the same test because he diligently studied and practiced speaking the vocabulary each night for two weeks preceding the test. If you simply evaluate their grades, these students are equally intelligent. But if you factor in the noncognitive traits of the students (time management, commitment, maturity), the latter would clearly be a more promising candidate for admission to a university.

Charles E. Lovelace, Jr. is the executive director of theĀ Morehead-Cain Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Several years ago, he had an epiphany about noncognitive evaluation criteria for scholarship candidates. At the time, his foundation reevaluated their scholarship program and were surprised to discover that although scholarship recipients were earning good grades, many of them weren’t highly engaged on the campus.

Trying to get at the core of the issue, the foundation then rated the campus engagement level of about 350 scholarship recipients. Mr. Lovelace was shocked at the results; there was absolutely no correlation between campus engagement and the scholarship application evaluation criteria (SAT scores, high school activities, past leadership, etc). A student who excelled on paper and in the classroom wasn’t necessarily a stellar asset to the campus as a whole. “That was a real wake-up call that really transformed how we think about this,” Mr. Lovelace said.

In order to remedy the issue, the Morehead-Cain Foundation revamped their application process to hone in on the noncognitive aspects of an applicant. Instead of listing dozens of high school activities, applicants can include a limited number of activities and write a description of their participation. Professional readers perform the initial screening. After the first round of evaluations, grades and test scores are not considered as a factor, but noncognitive criterion are evaluated. Finally, behavioral-based interviews are conducted with applicants. As a result of this overhaul, the Foundation has diversified their applicant base and upped the caliber of their scholarship recipients.

Although we still lack a universally accepted methodology for evaluating noncognitive traits, there are various methods to look into. There is the Personal Potential Index (PPI) from the Educational Testing Service and the short-answer format “Insight Resume” from Eastern Washington University. Noncognitive assessments are especially helpful in evaluating students who are on the borderline for a decision, and also for low-income or minority students who struggle with standardized tests but have otherwise redeeming qualities.

“This gets us out of the habit of talking about students as a 3.8, 29 ACT,” says Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment at DePaul University, which now allows students to reply to short-answer questions instead of submitting test scores. “If nothing else,” Mr. Boeckenstedt says, “this allows us to think of students as multidimensional.”

How does your school evaluate noncognitive skills in applicants?

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