Noncognitive Measures: The Academic Trend That Could Change Everything

Posted on February 04, 2013


For decades, standardized test scores, GPAs, and graduation ranks have been the gold standard in college admissions and hiring. But in recent years, there's been a shift to consider not just these hard numbers but also the more nuanced factors known as noncognitive measures that give a glimpse into who you are as a person and how likely you are to succeed, regardless of your knowledge level. Schools like Boston College and Tufts University and employers like Google want to know more than your test scores: they want to know about your personality and potential for achievement.

What Are Noncognitive Skills?

Noncognitive skills are awkwardly named, but they're not a foreign concept. You're probably already familiar with them, as they're more commonly known as soft skills or social skills. They're grit, drive, and social intelligence — everything that makes us succeed but can't be tested on the SAT. Noncognitive skills demonstrate that you can be persistent, solve problems effectively, work well and communicate with others, and show integrity. They can help you succeed in school, work, and life, even if you weren't the "smartest" kid in your class. Demonstration of these skills can be a great indicator of future success, both in academics and in the workplace, and that's why they're increasingly becoming valued in academia and the workplace.

Why Are Noncognitive Skills So Important?

Your fast facts, including your GPA and SAT scores, are just a part of the story. Sure, earning top marks in high school or college is a good indicator that you're smart and willing to work hard for your achievements, but can you do well when presented with the varying challenges of college or the workplace? Individuals with a strong foundation of noncognitive skills are much more likely to persevere. On the flip side, students who are intimidated by the SAT may excel when it comes to teamwork, problem solving, and communication, and noncognitive assessments seek to reveal these skills, as well as the potential of the students who possess them. These measures are increasingly being used to identify students that have the best potential to stick through to graduation and high achievement.

Researchers believe that noncognitive skills have a major role in determining academic and long-term achievement. James Heckman, a world leader in the study of human capital policy, insists that promoting noncognitive skills is incredibly effective for supporting long-term success, noting, "Numerous instances can be cited of people with high IQs who fail to achieve success in life because they lacked self-discipline and of people with low IQs who succeeded by virtue of persistence, reliability, and self-discipline." Certain students may have a great deal of intelligence, but without the drive to follow through and use it, they can fail despite being gifted. Further, Harvard researchers emphasize the neuroscientific connection between emotional thought and knowledge: in order to apply school knowledge in real life, we need an "emotional rudder" that guides our judgement and action. Having knowledge is simply not enough. We also have to know how to use it.

Ultimately, employers have determined that noncognitive skills are valuable. A 2008 survey from the Education Testing Service indicates that nearly all employers rate skills like oral communications, collaboration, professionalism, problem-solving, and social responsibility as "very important." It's clear that the demand for these skills is there, and in some cases, it's actually higher than the demand for mastery of math and science, subjects that are commonly considered to be among the most important for 21st century education.

Do Test Scores Really Matter?

In a word, yes. Test scores do still count. A full 78% of schools consider test scores to be very important. They offer a simple way to measure achievement and potential. But — and this is what's important — they're not the only factor in decision-making now. Schools and employers care more about character, demonstrated achievement, meeting challenges, and showing consistent growth.

Although test scores are still very important for the most part, some schools are going test-optional. In 2011, DePaul University became the largest private university to make standardized test scores optional, allowing applicants to instead answer short essay questions designed to reveal noncognitive traits. Wake Forest University has also dropped its test score requirement, allowing applicants to participate in personal interviews instead.

For high-achieving students and applicants, noncognitive skills assessments may not make a huge difference, especially in non-competitive situations. But for borderline cases, such as students with a below-average GPA or job applicants who lack sufficient experience, noncognitive measures can help demonstrate their potential for success and put them over the edge. At Northeastern University, noncognitive assessment is used to identify candidates for the Torch Scholars Program, which admits students who show potential but wouldn't otherwise qualify for admission based on their GPA and test scores. President of the College Board David Coleman suggests that noncognitive assessments are most useful for evaluating applicants with high grades and low test scores, or low grades and high test scores, but the same is not true for students who demonstrate high/high or low/low.

In addition to test scores, schools and employers are now looking more closely at transcripts, essays, and interview questions. These allow them to explore a better view of the entire student. They're looking for students who rose to the challenge of AP-level courses, built teamwork skills in extracurricular activities, and consistently improved their grades, among other factors.

What You Can Expect from Noncognitive Assessments

Noncognitive assessments are typically conducted through self-evaluations, short essays, situational judgment tests, or interviews. You may also be measured by outside input including teacher ratings and letters of recommendation. A popular assessment tool is the Educational Testing Service's Person Potential Index, which offers a standardized rating of a graduate school applicant's potential for success in factors including creativity, resilience, communication, organization, teamwork, and integrity. The ACT's ENGAGE is designed to improve retention rates and predict GPAs with 108 questions measuring motivation, skills, social engagement, and self-discipline. Questions found in noncognitive assessments or interviews may include:

  • Describe a goal you have set for yourself and how you plan to accomplish it. (DePaul University)
  • How would you compare your educational interests and goals with other students in your high school? (DePaul University)
  • Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you took to address it. (Oregon State University's Insight Resume)
  • Describe an experience facing or witnessing discrimination and how you responded. (Oregon State University's Insight Resume)
  • Yes or no: If I were offered a good job, I would leave college. (University of Utah)
  • The human narrative is replete with memorable characters like America’s Paul Revere, ancient Greece’s Perseus or the Fox Spirits of East Asia. Imagine one of humanity’s storied figures is alive and working in the world today. Why does Joan of Arc have a desk job? Would Shiva be a general or a diplomat? Is Chewbacca trapped in a zoo? In short, connect your chosen figure to the contemporary world and imagine the life he/she/it might lead. (Tufts University)
  • Explain a database in three sentences to your eight-year-old nephew. (Google, many more questions and answers here)

How to Improve Your Own Skill Set

Compared to noncognitive assessments, acing the SAT is a piece of cake. It's something you can work hard and study for. There's no end to the test prep options available for standardized testing. But when it comes to noncognitive measures, the only way to improve your test score is to improve your character:

  • Take on challenges, including difficult courses or leadership positions. Follow opportunities, such as pilot programs or lifelong learning resources.
  • Push through difficult situations. Schools greatly admire students who demonstrate resilience and grit, who find ways to rise above less-than-optimal conditions to achieve.
  • Join extracurricular activities. Social and team activities can help you develop social intelligence skills that are valuable in today's learning environment and workplace. Teamwork, collaboration, and communication can all be fine-tuned in these activities.
  • Set measurable, positive goals and follow through on them. Every achievement, even a small one, is an achievement that demonstrates your ability to stick with it.
  • Become a decent person. Show fairness to others, be trustworthy, and understand how to handle social situations.

The Future of Noncognitive Skills

Noncognitive skills are typically those that can't be easily measured. This, of course, presents a problem for admissions officers sorting through potentially tens of thousands of applications. It takes a lot of manpower to go through essays and letters of recommendation, and even further time and effort to design and conduct noncognitive assessments and interviews.

Noncognitive measures aren't just time-consuming, they're a whole new ball game, and with this new field comes a lack of consistency and even occasional failure. Oregon State University's "Insight Resume" has been considered one of the leading resources in college admissions noncognitive measurement, as it effectively identified students with the highest potential for graduation in the incoming class of 2004. But as it failed to reproduce the same spot-on identification in subsequent classes, the system was scaled back to have a smaller influence on admissions decisions.

Schools are still working out how they can best measure noncognitive skills, and though the field is still developing, there's already the potential for coaching. Noncognitive assessments are still, ultimately, tests, and as Educational Testing Service senior research director Patrick Kyllonen notes, where tests go, test prep will follow.

There's still a long way to go when it comes to widespread implementation of noncognitive measures. Although schools and employers are increasingly turning to noncognitive assessments as a supplement to cognitive measures, few organizations employ them as more than a novelty, still largely relying on cognitive assessments for decisions. Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, believes that we need to change the incentive structure of school policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top in order to provide teachers, schools, and school systems the incentives they need to teach noncognitive skills that have a long term impact. This is the first step in breaking down barriers that will allow for more organizations to effectively teach and utilize noncognitive skills.