Do College Admissions Criteria Capture Creativity?

November 29, 2015 in Blog

19743512681_eadd2b1bff_kWhat does it take to get into college? High school grades and standardized tests are still the most common metrics. While this information is often considered alongside other sources of information (interviews, personal statement, essay, letters of recommendation), these other indicators of college potential are typically not considered if high school grades and standardized test scores don’t reach a certain threshold.

Even though standardized test scores do predict academic performance and job performance (see herehere), relying so heavily on these metrics is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, studies sponsored by the College Board have found that the SAT is a better predictor of college performance for White students than African American, Hispanic American, and Asian American students (see herehere, and here). This finding has been a major impetus for the test optional admissions movement. Indeed, a recent study found that a greater weighting of a multidimensional battery of predictors can increase the number of ethnic groups admitted to universities.

Another reason that relying so exclusively on standardized tests is problematic is that it misses out on other key skills that are known to contribute to life success, defined more broadly than merely the capacity for academic learning. An emerging list of “non-cognitive skills”, such as active learnings strategies, intrinsic motivation, growth mindset, grit, social-emotional intelligence, imagination, and creativity also contribute to lifelong learning, growth, and personal fulfillment.

Creativity and imagination are particularly important skills in this century, considering how quickly this world is changing. Perhaps more than ever before, this world needs people who are not only quick learners, but who are also reflective learners as well as creators of new knowledge; those who have the capacity to not only absorb what is, but also have the foresight to envision what could be.

Just how much are traditional college entrance procedures missing out on these crucial creative skills? This was a question that motivated a new paper by Jean Pretz from Elizabethtown College and James C. Kaufman from the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, two leaders in the creativity research field. The researchers looked at multiple measures of creativity (performance and self-report) across multiple domains (everyday, scholarly, performance, scientific, and artistic). They also collected data on multiple traditional admissions criteria, including SAT, high school class rank, and interviews. How well do these traditional admissions criteria reflect creativity?

Not so well. 

On the whole, the measures of creativity were only weakly related to the traditional college admissions criteria. SAT and interview scores showed no relationship whatsoever to test items such as “I am good at coming up with new ideas”, “I have a lot of good ideas”, and “I have a good imagination”. In fact, these items were even negatively related to high school class rank. This suggests that those students who are more academically successfully in high school tend to consider themselves as less creative than other students.

Traditional measures of college entrance were also completely unrelated to self-report measures of everyday creativity (e.g., “Choosing the best solution to a problem”, “Thinking of new ways to help people”, “Being able to work through my personal problems in a healthy way”, “Maintaining a good balance between my work and my personal life”) and artistic creativity (“Making a sculpture or piece of pottery”, “Appreciating a beautiful painting”, “Enjoying an art museum”, “Sketching a person or object”).

To be sure, traditional criteria for college admissions weren’t entirely irrelevant to creativity. The SAT did significantly predict the more academically-oriented measures of creativity, including self-reported scholarly and scientific creativity, an essay asking students to describe their dream project relating to an academic field or intended career path, and performance on an on-the-spot test requiring students to write a creative caption for an ambiguous photograph. Interview scores predicted self-reported scholarly, scientific, and performance forms of creativity as well as on-the-spot creative thinking. High school rank was weakly related to essay writing creativity and scholarly creativity.

Out of all of the traditional measures of college admissions, SAT scores were a better predictor of academically-oriented measures of creativity than high school rank or interview scores. Unsurprisingly, the strongest unique relationship (considering all of the traditional criteria at once) was between SAT Math scores and self-reported creativity in science.

So where does this analysis leave us? On the one hand, this is consistent with the analysis conducted by Nathan Kunzel and colleagues showing that standardized measures of cognitive ability are somewhat predictive of creativity. These results are also consistent with recent research showing some overlap between the kinds of cognitive skills required to do well on an IQ test (working memory, concentration, pattern reasoning) and the kinds of skills necessary to do well on tests of on-the-spot creative thinking (see here).

On the other hand, there is plenty of non-overlap between standardized test performance and creativity, especially when you look beyond brief, on-the-spot tests of general creative thinking to creativity within specific domains and creativity assessed over many years of deep immersion in a specific body of knowledge (see herehere, and here). Also, it is troublesome that in the Pretz and Kaufman study, students with better high school grades reported lower confidence in their ability to be creative.

These results suggest that we may be actively penalizing our most creative students. As the researchers note,

“If higher education faculty and administrators seek to develop critical and creative thinkers who can adapt to and innovate in a rapidly changing society, we must identify and develop creativity among our students. Such a goal can mean changing curricula or changing selection practices used for college admission.”

Not only that, but broadening the criteria of admissions to include more measures of creativity and other non-cognitive skills (e.g., active learning strategies, motivation, grit, social-emotional intelligence) may also broaden the cultural diversity of the student body (see here, here, here, and here).

This doesn’t mean we need to throw out all of the traditional college entrance criteria– indeed, if you have absoutely no other information to go with, the SAT does somewhat predict on-the-spot creative thinking– but this analysis does point to the importance of broadening our criteria for college admissions and being more flexible in the weighting of factors if we truly care about predicting lifelong creativity and personal fulfillment.

As I’ve argued before, I strongly believe that if we broadened our college admissions criteria, we’d be pleasantly surprised by just how much intellectual and creative potential already exists all around us.

(C) 2015 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

photo credit: flickr

One Response to “Do College Admissions Criteria Capture Creativity?”

  1. Akuraan says:

    A diversity in what you do, as long as you are not speard too thin. Taking in leadership in a few areas of your life. Entrepreneurship is good. Personality. Accepting challenges is big taking the hardest possible classes in high school (AP and Honors) is better than taking standard classes for an easy A’. Think of it from the college’s perspective: most want to have a vibrant student body, not an army of drones.