The Number-One Predictor of College Success (Hint: It's a pleasant surprise!)

number-one predictor of college success

An article came up in my newsfeed this week about how researchers are accurately predicting the success of college students before classes even start for the semester. 

But it wasn’t a recipe for success.

On the contrary, it was rather fatalistic. It declared some students success stories and others failures before they ever got a chance to submit a paper or cram for a midterm.

The article seemed to suggest that some kids have what it takes to graduate, and others are doomed to drop out, no matter how motivated they are or how ready they feel for college.

Is Success Written in Stone?

I was horrified to hear this news, and something just didn't seem right. After all, my personal experience tells me that a lot of the skills required for college are developed during college. 

So I dug deeper. And it turns out that there are myriad headlines pointing out the correlations between students' statistics and their success: 

  • "Confirmed: High School GPAs Predict College Success"
  • "Biggest Predictor of College Success is Family Income"
  • "Despite Detractors, [Standardized] Tests Do Well Predicting College Success"
  • "Study: School Attendance Predicts College Success"

Each article cites a different key factor in the success equation. But they all claim that we can predict success and failure without knowing anything about students as people.

If you think that sounds fishy, I'm right there with you.

Then I came across an article from The Wall Street Journal about not merely a study but an experiment. Over 3,500 college students were tracked, but they were also assisted by campus programs. Here's what the authors of the study concluded: 

The new analysis found that “mind-set”—a student’s sense of social belonging or grit, for example—is a stronger predictor of whether a student is likely to graduate than previously believed. So powerful, in fact, that it counts even more than external factors like standardized tests scores, income levels and whether the student’s parents are college graduates.
— The Wall Street Journal, "The Most Important Factor in a College Student’s Success"


What a powerfully encouraging finding! Students who have direction, motivation, and determination are more likely to succeed at college and less likely to drop out. 

If we send high school students off to college knowing their strengths and capabilities, they’ll actually be more likely to graduate. [Tweet that]

How Do We Help Students See Their True Potential?

To be successful at college, students need to see their own potential. And that's a challenging proposition for people of any age.

Seeing our own potential means acknowledging our shortcomings. It means viewing our failures as wisdom gained.It means having faith in our ability to change, grow, and learn from our mistakes. 

This, in my opinion, is the true importance of the personal statement required for the application. The college essay is an exercise in self-reflection, a chance for students to self-assess and own their deep passion and purpose. 

The finished essay shows colleges a deeper aspect of students. But the process of writing this essay shows students a deeper aspect of themselves. 

Students who take time to dig deep into their own experience and connect with their passions don't simply write more compelling statements. They also reflect on who they are, what they have overcome, and where they want to go in the world.

They will embark on their college journeys with a positive mind-set. They will be the ones who know they’ve got grit and who aren’t afraid of challenges and hard work.

These are the students who will be primed for success—but not because of test scores, family income, sleep habits, or GPA.  Rather, these students will have the internal motivation that comes from knowing what they want out of college, and what they want to share with the world.

Learn more about how your teen can write a thoughtful, meaningful college essay that lays the foundation for future success!