Beyond Standardized Tests: How Non-Cognitive Skills Indicate College, Career Success

By the time students reach the end of high school, they are well acquainted with cognitive skill assessments. Math, critical reading, and fact recall are prioritized in our traditional school systems, subjects that rely heavily on cumulative knowledge and memorization. Unfortunately, standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, and GPA ratings cannot provide a full picture of students’ abilities. Crucial indicators of success, like the level of academic perseverance and resilience are not measured. Gifted individuals can be left behind, if their scores aren’t up to par or if they aren’t challenged enough by the pace or content of standardized curricula.

Colleges are starting to factor these non-cognitive skills into admissions decisions, sometimes known as “soft skills.” These abilities and traits are much harder to measure, such as grit, resilience, and empathy. Research shows that these skill sets can be better predictors of academic and career success, causing schools to rethink the use of standardized testing for admissions.

Now, colleges like the University of Notre Dame are using non-cognitive exams like the ETS Personal Potential Index to get a better idea of how students will perform in graduate school.

Types of Non-Cognitive Skills

  • Empathy
  • Curiosity
  • Resiliency
  • Grit
  • Verbal communication
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Emotional maturity
  • Persistence
  • Self-Control

Why Non-Cognitive Skills Matter

In one student study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania revealed that academic perseverance, rather than intelligence, is a better indicator of a student’s success in college. Student with high levels of grit and self-control, two non-cognitive skills associated with academic perseverance, tended to earn high GPAs but had low scores on standardized tests, such as the SAT. These two qualities help ensure that a student attends class regularly, remains on task with assignments, and maintains steady performance levels throughout a semester. Researchers at the University of Chicago have found evidence to back this idea up. Gender gaps in collegiate performance went down by 21 percent once students were sorted by attendance rates and study habits.

International businesses and academic departments are quickly realizing important non-cognitive skills are in the workplace. Students who excel in leadership positions in high school and college are well positioned to excel in similar roles in the workplace. Academic perseverance and organizational skills are also indicators of success in college. Of course, these are the kinds of indicators not factored into the algorithms used for standardized test scoring.

The Institute for the Study of Labor released a report examining skills like agreeableness, emotional stability, conscientiousness, autonomy, and extraversion. They discovered that many businesses value these traits quite a bit, when income levels were examined. Subjects who held leadership positions in high school typically earn between four and 24 percent more income later in life. Many employers report dissatisfaction with college graduate’s lack of communication, leadership and interpersonal skills. An emphasis on non-cognitive skills may help to remedy this unpreparedness.

Measuring Non-Cognitive Skills

The Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania has created several scales to measure grit and self-control. Both are measure academic perseverance and are considered good indicators of college and career success.

For the study, individuals are ranked based on a series of eight to twelve survey questions and statements, requiring responses that fall on a scale between “Not like me at all” and “Very much like me” or “Almost never” to “At least once a day.” You can take the full surveys on the Duckworth Lab website. Here are a few statements from these tests:


  • New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.
  • I finish whatever I begin.
  • I become interested in new pursuits every few months.


  • My mind wandered when I should have been listening.
  • I said something rude.
  • I lost my temper at home or school.

These scales can help you discover how deliberate and diligent you are, or if you have a tendency to be neglectful and impulsive. These behavioral tendencies have not been the focus of quantitative measurement before, since most standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, focus on cognitive skills such as mathematical reasoning and critical reading.

Developing Non-Cognitive Skills

An Amsterdam-based research firm known as The Argumentation Factory has created a visual map of non-cognitive skills and how they can be developed. Here are a few of the highlights from this data, which was collected during the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conference in 2012.

  • Shifting parenting methods to emphasize non-cognitive skills
  • Schools incentives
  • Questioning and restructuring societal values
  • Including non-cognitive skills into classroom learning goals and evaluations
  • Incorporating non-cognitive skill development in public policy

How Non-Cognitive Skills Can Reshape College Admissions

Education experts like Dr. William Sedlacek of the University of Maryland drawing more attention to the value of non-cognitive skill, and questioning why schools rely on outdated standardized intelligence tests like the SAT. Sedlacek argues that standardized tests overlook what’s actually important to educators – such as our teamwork skills, our ability to creatively solve problems, and our overall potential. These “soft skills” are widely considered to be more crucial to a student’s future career success.

These discussions are causing schools to change their admissions process and prioritize non-cognitive skills. Schools like Eastern Washington University use an insight resume, which helps prospective students showcase their creative pursuits, group work, and leadership opportunities in their college applications. The focus on non-cognitive abilities is catching on, with testing centers like ETS and ACT launching new tests to measure these often overlooked skills:

Self-Evaluations and Essays

Here are a few sample essay prompts used by colleges and companies to evaluate non-cognitive skills:

  • How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle? (A Google interview question)
  • Rutgers University is a vibrant community of people with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. How would you benefit from and contribute to such an environment? Consider variables such as your talents, travels, leadership activities, volunteer services, and cultural experiences. (Rutgers University)
  • If you were offered a good job, would you leave college? (University of Utah)
  • What are your experiences facing or witnessing discrimination? (Oregon State University)

Transcripts and Resumes

More colleges are recognizing the importance of non-cognitive skills, which means that they are looking for well-rounded resume and transcript items that show how you perform in leadership positions outside of standardized tests and curricula. Here are some experiences you can highlight to demonstrate ways you’ve persevered and adapted to challenges:

  • Leadership positions – TA or mentor roles in school show that you have the initiative to take on additional work and responsibility. These roles require a considerable skill in communication, grit, and interpersonal savvy.
  • Student clubs – Participation in a student group demonstrates your curiosity toward a particular topic or effort.
  • Volunteer work and activism – Unpaid work can demonstrate reliability and persistence for a cause that you believe in.

Situational Judgment Tests

Popular testing companies, such as ACT and ETS, now administer non-cognitive assessments in classroom. The ACT ENGAGE is a test given to students in grades six all the way through college. They help teachers, students, and parents measure the following:

  • Motivation
  • Self-Regulation
  • Social engagement
  • Commitment to college
  • Goal striving
  • Academic self-confidence


College admissions panels and hiring committees often like to conduct interviews to explore prospective candidate skills. Face-to-face interviews can help an organization get a better grasp of your interpersonal and communication skills. Interviewers are eager to see how you perform in leadership positions.

Here is a list of some basic dos and don’ts to keep in mind as you prepare for an interview.


  • Ask a friend, family member, or mentor to give you a mock interview with potential questions.
  • Research the organization you will be interviewing with
  • Make a list of your non-cognitive skills, extracurricular activities, and hobbies. Practice discussing these aspects of your life during mock interviews.


  • Fidget throughout the interview
  • Rush or blurt out your answers. It’s generally acceptable to take a few minutes to formulate a response during an interview.
  • Get off topic. Try to answer the question with a relevant answer, unless another topic can be tied to the question in a meaningful way.

Colleges That Embrace Non-Cognitive Assessments

Additional Resources

Research on non-cognitive or “soft” skill sets might revolutionize the way colleges and employers recruit people. Education organizations are finding new ways to measure these skills, which can predict a student’s academic and career success.

These new perspectives give us a better picture of individual performance than current standardized tests.