Got grit? That’s what colleges want to know before they admit

What is this 'grit' colleges are now looking for?

A Raytown South High School college advisor talks about the importance of showing grit in the college application process.
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A Raytown South High School college advisor talks about the importance of showing grit in the college application process.

Maia Lewis had never heard the term grit.

In her college admission essays the 17-year-old Raytown South student explained that ever since she was a little girl she had wanted to be an engineer — always taking things apart, putting them back together. All her education to date, she said, has been pointed at attaining that career goal.

Lewis, an A and B student with a list of activities she’s involved in, recently got acceptance letters from Kansas State University and Missouri University of Science and Technology. Whether she knew it or not, Lewis’ never-wavering attitude proved she has grit.

These days, in the world of college admissions, top grades, talent and community service hours will get a student a knock at the door, but it’s going to take a bit of grit, school officials say, to cross the hallowed threshold.

Grit is the new it when it comes to colleges and universities deciding on admission and rejection letters.

Even the brightest students could sometimes get passed over by college admissions officers if they come up lacking in the grit category.

What’s grit all about?

Angela Duckworth who wrote the book “Grit,” a 2016 New York Times best seller, described it this way: “Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something.” Grit, she says, is stick-to-itiveness — hanging in for the long haul to achieve a specific goal.

Duckworth writes that “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”

It’s not enough for colleges and universities just to see that a student has the grades to meet the academic criteria for acceptance. Although grades count big, schools want students who have what it takes to ride the rigors of college life to graduate. That takes grit, they say.

“We don’t have a box we check that says grit, but we are always looking for students who demonstrate resilience, persistence, adaptability,” said Ronné P. Turner, vice provost for admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, an elite private college that receives about 30,000 applications for admission from the best students in the country every year. Only 16 percent, or less than 5,000, are accepted.

And grit, Turner said, is not always so easy for admission officers to point to. Sometimes, it’s evident because of the high level of course work a student has consistently mastered. Other times, “it takes someone in a student’s recommendation letters saying, hey things haven’t always come so easy for this student,” Turner said.

“But we don’t want students to artificially manufacture grit,” Turner said. “We are looking for the authentic student.”

Students like Lewis, for example.

“I never really had any obvious obstacles,” the teen said. “My family and friends have always been supportive, and there hasn’t been anything I’ve had to give up.” Rather, Lewis said her obstacles were internal, knowing what she wanted to do with her life and “motivating myself to just keep going, never give up.”

With no real way to reliably measure soft skills, admissions offices rely on personal essays, interviews, lists of extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation to get a complete picture of an applicant.

Of course, that means students have to understand that getting themselves to school every morning — even when their home life works against that — and consistently nailing their academics despite the lack of support from home, may just be everyday life to them. But it may also be an indication they have grit. And they have to articulate that somehow in the college application process.

Dominic Barton, managing director at McKinsey & Co. a global consulting firm, told The Wall Street Journal a year ago that grit is a stronger predictor of whether a student is likely to graduate than previously believed. It’s so powerful, Barton said, that it counts even more than external factors like standardized tests scores, income levels and whether the student’s parents are college graduates.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 59 percent of full-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree in 2006 had graduated by 2012.

At the same time, federal education officials have called for colleges and universities to increase graduation rates, and better yet, graduate more students with a bachelor’s degree in four, rather than the all-too-common six years.

A six-year trek to a bachelor’s degree adds to a student’s college costs, and for many of them piles on to what ends up as stifling student-loan debt. Colleges have come under fire for that, too.

So colleges want to know if they admit you, will you come, stay and graduate, said Kal Chany, author of the Princeton Review college advice book “Paying for College Without Going Broke.”

“Colleges know that this is the generation of the helicopter parent’s kid, where so many kids, no matter how bright, have their lives micro-managed for them.” Chany said.

“Colleges want to know whether they have the grit to survive on their own. They want to know that when the kid leaves the nest they are able to fly.”

A good way for potential students to show college admission officers they have “it” is in their high school transcript, said Chany. That’s where the admission officer will see if you took a tough courseload and did well. It will show what electives you took year after year and whether those electives reflect a particular interest or “were all over the place,” Chany said.

And when it comes to showing off in the college essay, Chany warns that colleges don’t necessarily see grit in the application or essay that includes a long list of unrelated activities.

“You are better off showing a few interests with significant commitment rather than a laundry list with superfluous participation,” Chany said.

All this talk about whether a student has grit doesn’t mean schools aren’t admitting students just because they can’t show that they’re gritty. Grit, university officials say, is one part of the picture. Universities want diversity among the student body.

“But there definitely is more of an emphasis on grit lately,” said Amanda Campbell, high school counselor at Central Academy in Kansas City. She said when she was heading to college the schools seemed more concerned about how many hours of community service students had, rather than what environment they emerged from.

“At the end of the day,” Campbell said, “students have to show they can balance academics, life, strife and whatever curve balls come their way.”

The value that college admissions now are putting on grit is good for inner-city school students, many of whom have hurdled a host of obstacles.

Adding weight to the grit component of college admissions allows schools to consider a more diverse population of students, said Bill Sedlacek, an emeritus professor of education at the University of Maryland in College Park. Sedlacek has been studying alternative ways for schools to identify students that are not the traditional — standardized tests and class ranks.

Considering other criteria “broadens the pool,” adding potential for a more diverse student population, Sedlacek said. But that also means a student has to adapt in a system that was not initially developed to accommodate diversity.

Jacquada Gray, a member of the Missouri College Adviser Corps, works with Central Academy students on college applications and scholarship essays. “This school is full of students that have grit, that determination that schools are looking for,” Gray said. “A lot of these students may not have the grades these colleges are looking for, so they have to go the extra mile to get acceptance.”

Campbell said: “We tell them you have to tell these schools where you came from, where you want to go and how you are going to get there, because it is not just about going to college, it’s about finishing.”

Shalexis Davis understands the concept.

The 17-year-old Central Academy senior has already gotten acceptance letters from about seven schools, including her top choice, the University of Central Missouri. Davis is in the top 5 percent of her class.

“But she had to work hard to get there,” Campbell said.

Davis said she hasn’t always had support from members of her family — aunts, uncles, cousins — who she said told her she didn’t have what it would take to go to college. They said she wasn’t smart enough and didn’t have the grades.

That was in middle school, Davis said. “I thank them now because if they hadn’t said those things maybe I wouldn’t be where I am today.” Hearing that she wasn’t good enough, she said, only made her work harder.

It’s the story she tells in the essays attached to her college and scholarship applications.

Recently Davis arrived home from school to find a white box lightly covered with snow just outside the mailbox. Inside she found an acceptance letter to Mid-America Nazarene University. “It was like getting a present,” Davis said.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc