Reading, Writing, Arithmetic . . . and Grit? A Look at the Latest Buzzword in Education

"Got grit?" is the question on the minds of many educators and students these days. What does the presence or absence of "grit" mean for student success, and how does it factor into college admission?

Grit. It’s a word you’ve likely been hearing quite a bit in the past year or two. What does it really mean, and how might this character trait factor into your students’ college admission experience?

What is “grit”?

An admission concept furthered by Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, she refers to “grit” as a student’s perseverance and determination. It’s a student’s ability to press on when others quit and to accomplish things in the face of adversity.

More specifically, as Duckworth explains in her research statement, “Grit equips individuals to pursue especially challenging aims over years and even decades.” Based on her research, she also claims that grit is a better predictor of success than IQ and other measures with regard to a wide array of achievements, including where a student attends college and whether he or she will graduate.

Can grit be taught?

Simply put, grit is a product of struggle. Students may acquire grit by learning to remain tenacious throughout their own struggles and by seeing how others have achieved success through persistence and resilience.

Educators hoping to teach grit are encouraged to emphasize and praise effort over outcomes. For example, if a student does well on a science project, a teacher might say, “To have created such a great project, you must have put a lot of time and hard work into it."

In a recent NPR story, reporter Tovia Smith visited a public school in Brooklyn where teachers are working to instill grit in their students. At the Lenox Academy for Gifted Middle School Students, Assistant Principal Joe Giamportone says that no one ever uses the word “gifted.” Two teachers at the school further explained that they feel “smart” has become a dirty word because it implies there is some kind of natural intelligence that enables students to do well.

As Smith notes in the piece, “Kids with a fixed mindset, who believe high-achievers are born, not made, don’t want to risk looking like a loser . . . so they run from challenge. But kids who believe success comes from effort are grittier and ultimately do best.” That means teachers hoping to teach their students grit are advised to allow them to hit a wall (such as struggling to find the answer to an equation) and then press on until they can figure it out on their own. In this way, students can become comfortable with struggle and pushing through it instead of giving up.

What does grit mean for college admission?

Grades, GPA, and standardized test scores aren’t the only things that colleges look at when evaluating applicants. They also look at “noncognative” measures that will help predict a student’s success in college, and grit may be one of them.

How can a student demonstrate their “grittiness”? Application essays allow students to show schools what they’re really made of. The struggle a student discusses in an application essay doesn’t have to be major. Simply discussing how he or she pulled up their grades freshman year or why he or she took an advanced calculus class in spite of a fear of math could help paint a more complete picture for admission officials.

In short, there’s no quick and easy way for students to acquire grit­—but that’s exactly what makes it so valuable.

To learn more about grit as one of the keys to students’ success, check out Angela Duckworth’s TED talk:

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie Darlet and CollegeXpress. Stephanie holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times she has been: an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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