Do You Have Grit?

How much do things like determination and grit correlate with future success? It's a big question, and one that intrigues me as a former admissions officer. After all, the gatekeeping function of admissions is to scour all these imperfect proxies (some might say tea leaves) to try to predict the future success of all those wonderful applicants.

On that subject, a recent article by Amanda Ripley in the Atlantic Monthly caught my eye. Many of my blog readers have heard of Teach for America, the non-profit that sends talented and eager college graduates into inner-city and rural schools to teach disadvantaged students. It's a very competitive admissions process to join the "corps" (as they're called). Last year, Teach for America chose 4,100 out of 35,000 candidates, and during the 2008-09 school year, 11 percent of Ivy League seniors applied. It's a very popular career choice for college seniors.

So Teach for America has all this mad talent to choose from. Over the decades that their own researchers as well as outside researchers have been measuring their teachers' success in the classroom, some interesting findings have emerged. The factors that correlate most strongly with great teaching (which they measure very scientifically) are:

  • a previous track record of perseverance and passion for long-term goals, or "grit"
  • "life satisfaction" (measuring how content they are with their lives) and
  • two kinds of performance in college:
    • GPA and
    • leadership achievement, a "record of running something and showing tangible results"

Another fascinating finding: an applicant's overall GPA wasn't as good a predictor of success as the GPA from the last two years of college. It turns out that hitting some speed bumps the first few years and being able to get your act together the last two years demonstrates something important about you. That's the kind of thing one may have already suspected intuitively, but it's great to have some data to back up the intuition.

While those findings relate to success as a classroom teacher in particular, they do strike me as having wider applicability that college and grad school applicants might find interesting. What's the take-away? You should still treat your GPA and test scores as paramount -- those are the indicators that will matter most. But if you can also demonstrate perseverance and stick-with-it-ness (whatever your particular challenges might have been), and you are the kind of student who has seized leadership opportunities outside the classroom, you have a lot of great qualities to show off besides the numbers.

So if your applications are still a ways away, think about the choices you can make between now and then that will let you show off these kinds of qualities. And if your applications are starting to sneak up on you, take inventory of your achievements. What concrete achievements can you highlight to demonstrate perseverance and leadership? How are you going to showcase them? It's not enough to say you are a leader and someone who perseveres. You'll need to back it up with a track record proving those things.

This Atlantic article has so much interesting data and examples to chew on, with implications far beyond teaching skills. Take a look, and please leave a comment with your thoughts.


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).