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Adding Personality to the College Admissions Mix

Updated Aug. 19, 2009 8:51 p.m. ET

For years, colleges have asked applicants for their grade-point averages and standardized test scores.

Now, schools like Boston College, DePaul University and Tufts University also want to measure prospective students' personalities.

Using recently developed evaluation systems, these schools and others are aiming to quantify so-called noncognitive traits such as leadership, resilience and creativity. Colleges say such assessments are boosting the admissions chances for some students who might not have qualified based solely on grades and traditional test scores. The noncognitive assessments also are being used to screen out students believed to be at a higher risk of dropping out, and to identify newly admitted students who might need extra tutoring.

Big nonprofits that administer standardized admissions tests, including the College Board, the Educational Testing Service and ACT Inc., are also getting in on the trend. ETS, for instance, which administers the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, recently unveiled a "personal potential index" designed for schools that want to replace traditional letters of recommendation for prospective grad students with a standardized rating.

"There is quite a bit of demand for these [noncognitive] instruments," says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association of College Admissions Counseling. Educators say the use of such assessments is likely to grow as some schools search for new tools to recruit more minority and low-income students. At the same time, budget pressures are forcing public institutions in states like California and Florida to find new tools for selecting incoming students.

Critics contend that efforts to quantify noncognitive traits are often unreliable. And, they say, as the new systems of evaluation become widespread, prospective students will figure out how to game the answers to their advantage. Some legal advocates also say the assessments could stir affirmative-action controversy if they are used solely to give a boost to minorities' admissions chances.

Many colleges have asked personality-related questions for years as part of the admissions process, but the results were seldom scored in a standardized, numerical way, says William Sedlacek, a retired University of Maryland education professor whose "noncognitive questionnaire" has been used by various colleges and by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to award scholarships. He says such assessments are reliable and that if students and counselors figure out how to manipulate them they will have to be revised. "Right now, these things are useful," Dr. Sedlacek says.

Boston's Torch Scolars

Boston's Northeastern University uses noncognitive assessment for its Torch Scholars Program, which is designed to identify applicants who show leadership potential or have overcome adversity but probably wouldn't qualify for the university based solely on their high-school grades and test scores.

Torch scholars have average SAT scores about 200 points below the typical Northeastern student, says Philomena Mantella, senior vice president of enrollment management. Still, about 90% of them stay on from their freshman to sophomore years, roughly akin to the university-wide average of 92%. Nationwide, the so-called persistence rate for freshman at four-year schools is just under 70%.

Simona Vareikaite, 20, a Northeastern junior majoring in criminal justice, said her high-school grades were good but she didn't do well on the SAT. Although she found her college's personality assessment to be "weird," it gave her a boost in the competition for the Torch scholarship. "The whole process kind of opened a new opportunity for me," says Ms. Vareikaite, who after immigrating from Lithuania started cleaning offices as an 11-year-old to help support her family.

DePaul University, in Chicago, made one noncognitive assessment part of its application process for the first time for this fall's freshman class. Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment management, says it was mainly used to make decisions about students who were just over or just under DePaul's typical admission requirements.

Of the 8,500 freshman expected this year, he estimates about 150 got in because of how they answered four personality-assessment questions. But "lackadaisical responses" resulted in the rejection of about 50 applicants who were being considered for admission. Among the questions, to be answered in about 100 words each: "Describe a goal you have set for yourself and how you plan to accomplish it. How would you compare your educational interests and goals with other students in your high school?"

At Oregon State University, every would-be undergraduate must now provide 100-word answers to six questions that are part of what the school calls its "Insight Resume." One question, designed to measure applicants' capacity to deal with adversity, asks them to describe the most significant challenge they have faced and the steps they took to address it. Another asks them to describe their experiences facing or witnessing discrimination and how they responded. Every answer is reviewed by two admissions officers and scored on a 1-to-3-point scale.

Michele Sandlin, OSU's admissions director, says the university implemented the assessment in 2004 in part to help it attract and keep minority, low-income and other applicants who don't quite have the grades and test scores OSU generally looks for. Low scores on the Insight Resume aren't used to disqualify students with adequate grades and test scores, she says.

Nonprofits also are developing noncognitive evaluation systems. A "student readiness inventory" created by ACT is being used by Northern Arizona University, Chicago's Wilbur Wright College and more than two dozen other schools to identify admitted students with traits that might make them dropout risks, which could result in their getting extra help. The students are asked to respond to 108 statements and are rated by their level of agreement with items such as "I turn in my assignments on time," and "I'm a patient person."

The "personal potential index" recently unveiled by ETS has been piloted over the past three years in an Arizona State University effort to get more minority students to take the GRE and attend graduate school. Applicants are asked to identify past professors, supervisors and other recommenders. These people are sent a form asking them to rank applicants from "below average" to "truly exceptional" on items such as whether they support the efforts of others or accept feedback without getting defensive.

And the College Board, which administers the SAT, is working with researchers at Michigan State University to develop a questionnaire designed to measure applicants' judgment and behavior by asking them how they would respond to various situations, such as a group research project where one student doesn't contribute. A College Board spokeswoman says the company has not yet decided how the questionnaire would be administered or to whom.

Not everyone thinks such assessments are a good idea. Relying on applicants' writing about themselves won't always result in reliable information, says Howard Gardner, a Harvard education professor and author who has studied human intelligence. "There is a real danger in [applicants] gaming questions like that," he says.

And legal-advocacy groups that have fought racial preferences in college admissions say the new assessment systems could face court challenges if white and minority students are measured differently. "They can't apply them in a discriminatory fashion or adopt them solely for the purpose of increasing minorities in their classes," says Michael Rosman, general counsel for the Center for Individual Rights. The group represented plaintiffs before the Supreme Court, which in a pair of 2003 decisions upheld the use of minority status to boost the chances of an applicant in college admissions decisions, but ruled against points-based admissions formulas and said applicants should be considered case-by-case.

Gaming the System


2015 Super Bowl ads will cost $4.5 million apiece


Jay Busbee 
Shutdown Corner
SUPER BOWL WATCH: Seattle soaring in Super Bowl

Fireworks burst over MetLife Stadium before the NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game between the Seattle Seahawks

The Super Bowl ads, and presumably the Super Bowl as well, will be on NBC next year, and hoo boy, is the Peacock Network looking to cash in.Variety reports that NBC is asking $4.5 million for 30-second spots, obviously a record and a 12.5 percent increase over Fox's rate just this past year.

Now, it's worth noting that rates, like deals on cars and plane tickets, fluctuate wildly and are heavily dependent on inventory and time of year. Variety reports NBC is selling 40 30-second spots, of which 20 to 25 are already sold to long-term, multi-year buyers.

“It’s $9 million to get a Super Bowl spot, which is a lot,” one executive who purchases ads told Variety. “They are testing the market. If enough people don’t do it, it’s only June and it’s not broadcast until February. You could adjust your price in October if you need to. It’s all about testing the market and maximizing the revenue.”

Why on earth would anyone pay this much money for a single commercial? Because the Super Bowl is the most-watched television program of the year; Super Bowl XLVIII was the most-watched show in human history with 111.5 viewers. (Sorry, Peyton.) Sports are the one programming feature that resist DVR'ing and viewing on multiple alternative devices. (Of course, the outrageous fees are why you'll see advertisers rolling out their ads days or weeks before game time.)


  1. How much do Super Bowl commercials really cost? SB Nation
  2. Mayor of Glendale says city will lose money hosting Super Bowl ProFootball Talk on NBC Sports
  3. Sports News Minute: How to watch the Super Bowl (and ads) Comcast SportsNet Chicago
  4. Rihanna is watching the Super Bowl among the people SB Nation
  5. “Added security” planned for Super Bowl footballs ProFootball Talk on NBC SportsWe all know that the Super Bowl — hell, the entire NFL season — is nothing but an excuse for companies to spend millions on would-be edgy ads that will shoehorn their way into your consciousness next February ... and then vanish almost as quickly. (Go ahead, name three Super Bowl ads from last year.)


So now, when you see an endless barrage of cute animals, heart-tugging military reunions, and dudes getting injured in wacky ways, you'll at least have the comfort of knowing that somebody paid a fortune to put that in front of you.

Jay Busbee is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter.


Gen Y makes a mark and their imprint is entrepreneurship


They've got the smarts and the confidence to get a job, but increasing numbers of the millennial generation — those in their mid-20s and younger — are deciding corporate America just doesn't fit their needs.

So armed with a hefty dose of optimism, moxie and self-esteem, they are becoming entrepreneurs.

"People are realizing they don't have to go to work in suits and ties and don't have to talk about budgets every day," says Ben Kaufman, 20, founder of a company that makes iPod accessories. "They can have a job they like. They can create a job for themselves."

WORK-LIFE BALANCE: Companies slow to adjust to generation's expectations

Kaufman, of Melville, N.Y., named his company Mophie for his golden retrievers, Molly and Sophie. It earned a best-of-show award at the 2006 Macworld Expo in San Francisco.

He started out with financial help from his parents, but he now has more than $1.5 million in venture capital. His line of cases, armbands and belt clips is produced in China, which he visits several times a year, between classes at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., where he's a sophomore majoring in business.

It's no surprise that Kaufman focused first on the iPod. His generation demands customized music, and now they are trying to do the same with their lives.

"They want to create a custom life and create the kind of career that fits around the kind of life they want," says Bruce Tulgan, the founder of RainmakerThinking, a management training firm in New Haven, Conn., and an author specializing in generational diversity in the workplace.

Experts say these children of the baby-boom generation, also known as Gen Y or echo boomers, are taking to heart a desire for the kind of work-life balance their parents didn't have. They see being their own boss as a way to resolve the conflict. So now they're pressing ahead with new products or services or finding a new twist on old-style careers. They're at the leading edge of a trend toward entrepreneurship that has bubbled for decades and now, thanks in large part to technology, is starting to surge.

"It is a fun-loving generation," says Ellen Kossek, a Michigan State University professor in East Lansing who has spent 18 years researching workplace flexibility.

"They view work as part of life, but they don't live to work the way we were socialized as boomers. There is a real mismatch between what the young generation wants and what employers are offering."

Kossek says work-life issues are among the top three concerns among young graduates. But these young entrepreneurs aren't always thinking long-term about running their own shop.

"Employers aren't offering what they want, so the young say they'll be their own boss and start their own business."

But "what they find out is that it's not a way to get a work-life balance. When you have your own business, you're working long hours, because if you don't work, money doesn't come in."

Maybe because this is an optimistic bunch or perhaps because they haven't planned their lives farther than the weekend, they don't seem too worried about hard work. But because they are young and so new to the workforce, much of what is known about them is anecdotal with little existing data about their work habits.

Those who have studied generations in the workplace, such as author David Stillman of Minneapolis, do have some insights. Stillman, who co-wrote the 2002 book When Generations Collide, say these young workers have very different ideas than earlier generations.

"This generation has the group-think mentality," he says. "When you are raised to collaborate at home, then you are taught how to do that in middle school and practice it in college, you show up at work saying 'Where's my team?' They're just comfortable working with peers."

Many go into business with friends.

Maren Seibold, 25, is an environmental consultant for a Seattle area company; she teamed up last year with her 26-year-old tattoo artist husband, Mark Bentley, and a friend who does body piercing, Anthony Mason, 24, to launch Mantis Machines, which sells a redesigned version of the instrument that professional tattooists use.

Seibold, who has a degree in chemical engineering, tinkered with the tool to maximize its versatility and use a greater variety of needles. Mason's father owns a tool company and provided the materials. A $10,000 loan helped them get started. "It was something we all wanted to do," Seibold says.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2005 show that some 370,000 young people ages 16-24 were self-employed, the occupational category that includes entrepreneurs. In 1975, when baby boomers were young, some 351,000 were in that category. While that growth over 30 years isn't striking, indicators suggest more change ahead. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the self-employed category will grow 5% from 2004 to 2014, compared with 2% growth for the decade that began in 1994.

Such growth is largely a result of the Internet, where snazzy websites don't betray a home-based operation. Entrepreneurs can be more professional with less need for capital or office space. Global communication is easy and immediate. Businesses can outsource products and services and get a toll-free telephone number for nationwide access. Taking a risk isn't quite the financial leap of faith it once was.

"There's such a frontier for possible business ideas," says Scott Neuberger, 25, CEO of Boston-based Collegeboxes. "The barrier to entry is very low and doesn't require a lot of money in a lot of cases. I think there's more of an entrepreneurial spirit in our generation than perhaps in other generations. Being an entrepreneur has become cool and sexy."

In 2004, Neuberger bought Collegeboxes, competitor of a business he started at Washington University in St. Louis to help students relocate. It now operates in 18 states, offering door-to-door pickup and delivery, shipping and storage services and appliance rentals.

College students also are the focus of Arel Moodie's business, The Placefinder, which helps students find off-campus housing, roommates and sublets at his alma mater, Binghamton University, in upstate New York. Moodie, of Johnson City, N.Y., plans to expand further into the state and to New Jersey.

Getting started required taking a risk. "We were scared out of our minds," Moodie, 23, says. "We realized we're young, and we may not know everything we need to know, but what do we have to lose? If the business doesn't work, we'll totally get jobs like everybody else."

The self-employed are considerably more satisfied with their jobs than are other workers, according to a Pew Research Center poll of 2,003 Americans ages 18 and over released in August. They're more satisfied with their salaries, the job security, chances for promotion, level of on-the-job stress, flexibility of hours and proximity of work and home, the poll found.

"You've got a generation that has clearly seen the corporate culture not be loyal to their employees," says David Finney, president of Champlain College, which this fall launched a new program to lure enterprising undergraduates already in business for themselves. "This generation understands that the burden of taking care of themselves rests with them and not some company."

Although being an entrepreneur doesn't require a college degree, increasing numbers of campuses are offering courses to inspire those with business acumen. The Kansas City, Mo.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship, keeps a tally of courses related to entrepreneurship at two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Newly-compiled data show that 80% of the 2,662 campuses in the report offer at least one such course.

Last month, Grand Canyon University, a private, Christian university in Phoenix, announced a new College of Entrepreneurship that, starting in January, will provide students with seed money from a venture capital fund vested with $4.5 million to help launch projects.

Ian Schumann, 21, started his ultralight backpacking gear company this fall during his senior year at the University of Texas at Austin. He personally bankrolled his invention — a trekking pole — that he assembles and sells under the name Adapt All-Terrain Gear.

"All the money I've put into it has come out of my personal savings. It was something I was excited about trying to make work," he says. "If it doesn't work, I've wasted $1,500."

Senior Jason Nikel, 23, of Shelburne, Vt., is in Champlain College's entrepreneurial program. Nikel, a multimedia and graphic design major, created a clothing line of hats, T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts called Third Shift Clothing.

"It's not exactly at the point where I can graduate and have the income support me, so I'll keep it as a side project as I have for the past two years," he says. "I'll take it as far as it can go."

Sheena Lindahl, 24, and husband Michael Simmons, 25, have turned the rise of entrepreneurialism into their own business. While attending New York University in 2003, the duo started Extreme Entrepreneurship Education to help their peers pursue their dream careers. Lindahl has supported herself since age 17. Simmons started a website-development company at 16, has won awards for entrepreneurship and wrote an inspirational book about business success. This fall, they branched out with a tour of college campuses to inspire future entrepreneurs.

"I think it has a lot to do with the high expectations we were brought up with. 'You can do it. You can have what you want,' " Lindahl says. "We're criticized for wanting it all: high pay, purposeful work, flexible hours. It's hard for people in our generation just to do work"

This is Generation Y, a force of as many as 70 million, and the first wave is just now embarking on their careers — taking their place in an increasingly multigenerational workplace.

Get ready, because this generation — whose members have not yet hit 30 — is different from any that have come before, according to researchers and authors such as Bruce Tulgan, a founder of New Haven, Conn.-based RainmakerThinking, which studies the lives of young people.

  Who is Gen Y?
  Effect on workforce
About Gen Y workers

This age group is moving into the labor force during a time of major demographic change, as companies around the USA face an aging workforce. Sixty-year-olds are working beside 20-year-olds. Freshly minted college graduates are overseeing employees old enough to be their parents. And new job entrants are changing careers faster than college students change their majors, creating frustration for employers struggling to retain and recruit talented high-performers.

Unlike the generations that have gone before them, Gen Y has been pampered, nurtured and programmed with a slew of activities since they were toddlers, meaning they are both high-performance and high-maintenance, Tulgan says. They also believe in their own worth.

"Generation Y is much less likely to respond to the traditional command-and-control type of management still popular in much of today's workforce," says Jordan Kaplan, an associate managerial science professor at Long Island University-Brooklyn in New York. "They've grown up questioning their parents, and now they're questioning their employers. They don't know how to shut up, which is great, but that's aggravating to the 50-year-old manager who says, 'Do it and do it now.' "

That speak-your-mind philosophy makes sense to Katie Patterson, an assistant account executive at Edelman Public Relations in Atlanta. The 23-year-old, who hails from Iowa and now lives with two roommates in a town home, likes to collaborate with others, and says many of her friends want to run their own businesses so they can be independent.

"We are willing and not afraid to challenge the status quo," she says. "An environment where creativity and independent thinking are looked upon as a positive is appealing to people my age. We're very independent and tech savvy."

A great deal is known about Gen Y:

They have financial smarts. After witnessing the financial insecurity that beset earlier generations stung by layoffs and the dot-com bust, today's newest entrants into the workforce are generally savvy when it comes to money and savings. They care about such benefits as 401(k) retirement plans.

Thirty-seven percent of Gen Yers expect to start saving for retirement before they reach 25, with 46% of those already working indicating so, according to a September survey by Purchase, N.Y.-based Diversified Investment Advisors. And 49% say retirement benefits are a very important factor in their job choices. Among those eligible, 70% of the Gen Y respondents contribute to their 401(k) plan.

Patterson, who works at Edelman, has already met with a financial planner, and her co-worker, Jennifer Hudson, 23, is also saving for the future.

"I knew what a Roth IRA was at 17. I learned about it in economics class," says Hudson, an assistant account executive in Atlanta and a University of Alabama graduate. "My generation is much more realistic. We were in college when we saw the whole dot-com bust."

Work-life balance isn't just a buzz word. Unlike boomers who tend to put a high priority on career, today's youngest workers are more interested in making their jobs accommodate their family and personal lives. They want jobs with flexibility, telecommuting options and the ability to go part time or leave the workforce temporarily when children are in the picture.

"There's a higher value on self fulfillment," says Diana San Diego, 24, who lives with her parents in San Francisco and works on college campuses helping prepare students for the working world through the Parachute College Program. "After 9/11, there is a realization that life is short. You value it more."

Change, change, change. Generation Yers don't expect to stay in a job, or even a career, for too long — they've seen the scandals that imploded Enron and Arthur Andersen, and they're skeptical when it comes to such concepts as employee loyalty, Tulgan says.

They don't like to stay too long on any one assignment. This is a generation of multitaskers, and they can juggle e-mail on their BlackBerrys while talking on cellphones while trolling online.

And they believe in their own self worth and value enough that they're not shy about trying to change the companies they work for. That compares somewhat with Gen X, a generation born from the mid-1960s to the late-1970s, known for its independent thinking, addiction to change and emphasis on family.

"They're like Generation X on steroids," Tulgan says. "They walk in with high expectations for themselves, their employer, their boss. If you thought you saw a clash when Generation X came into the workplace, that was the fake punch. The haymaker is coming now."

Tulgan, who co-authored Managing Generation Y with Carolyn Martin and leads training sessions at companies on how to prepare for and retain Generation Yers, says a recent example is a young woman who just started a job at a cereal company. She showed up the first day with a recipe for a new cereal she'd invented.

Conflicts over casual dress

In the workplace, conflict and resentment can arise over a host of issues, even seemingly innocuous subjects such as appearance, as a generation used to casual fare such as flip-flops, tattoos and capri pants finds more traditional attire is required at the office.

Angie Ping, 23, of Alvin, Texas, lives in flip-flops but isn't allowed to wear them to the office. "Some companies' policies relating to appropriate office attire seem completely outdated to me," says Ping, at International Facility Management Association. "The new trend for work attire this season is menswear-inspired capri pants, which look as dressy as pants when paired with heels, but capri pants are not allowed at my organization."

And then there's Gen Y's total comfort with technology. While boomers may expect a phone call or in-person meeting on important topics, younger workers may prefer virtual problem solving, Tulgan says.

Conflict can also flare up over management style. Unlike previous generations who've in large part grown accustomed to the annual review, Gen Yers have grown up getting constant feedback and recognition from teachers, parents and coaches and can resent it or feel lost if communication from bosses isn't more regular.

"The millennium generation has been brought up in the most child-centered generation ever. They've been programmed and nurtured," says Cathy O'Neill, senior vice president at career management company Lee Hecht Harrison in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. "Their expectations are different. The millennial expects to be told how they're doing."

Matt Berkley, 24, a writer at St. Louis Small Business Monthly, says many of his generation have traveled and had many enriching experiences, so they may clash with older generations they see as competition or not as skilled. "We're surprised we have to work for our money. We want the corner office right away," he says. "It seems like our parents just groomed us. Anything is possible. We had karate class, soccer practice, everything. But they deprived us of social skills. They don't treat older employees as well as they should."

Employers are examining new ways to recruit and retain and trying to sell younger workers on their workplace flexibility and other qualities generally attractive to Gen Y.

At Abbott Laboratories in Chicago, recruiters are reaching out to college students by telling them about company benefits such as flexible work schedules, telecommuting, full tuition reimbursement and an online mentoring tool.

Perks and recruitment

Aflac, an insurer based in Columbus, Ga., is highlighting such perks as time off given as awards, flexible work schedules and recognition.

Xerox is stepping up recruitment of students at "core colleges," which is how the company refers to universities that have the kind of talent Xerox needs. For example, the Rochester Institute of Technology is a core school for Xerox recruiting because it has a strong engineering and printing sciences programs. Others include Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois and Cornell University.

Xerox is using the slogan "Express Yourself" as a way to describe its culture to recruits. The hope is that the slogan will appeal to Gen Y's desire to develop solutions and change. Recruiters also point out the importance of diversity at the company; Gen Y is one of the most diverse demographic groups — one out of three is a minority.

"(Gen Y) is very important," says Joe Hammill, director of talent acquisition. "Xerox and other Fortune-type companies view this emerging workforce as the future of our organization."

But some conflict is inevitable. More than 60% of employers say they are experiencing tension between employees from different generations, according to a survey by Lee Hecht Harrison.

The survey found more than 70% of older employees are dismissive of younger workers' abilities. And nearly half of employers say that younger employees are dismissive of the abilities of their older co-workers.

As an executive assistant, Jennifer Lewis approves expenses and keeps track of days off for employees, which she says can be awkward because she's so much younger than her co-workers. She reports to the president of her company's design department.

"People who have been here 10 years, and they have to report to a 22-year-old," Lewis says. She also says in an e-mail that "I often have to lie about my age to receive a certain level of respect that I want from my co-workers."

Lewis, a senior at Hunter College in New York, tries not to tell people she is a student for fear it will make her seem like "the young schoolgirl." She pays rent and pays for her own school and spends her free time taking cooking and pottery classes.

But there are advantages to being young as well. "I am computer savvy," she says, "so people come to me for everything."