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Beyond High GPAs and SATs

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, assistant professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) in USC Dornsife, implores admissions officials to look beyond high grades and test scores when considering potential students.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) in USC Dornsife discusses the science behind emotional aptitude during a recent conference about what kind of students to look for in the college admissions process. Photo by Elizabeth Mercer.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) in USC Dornsife discusses the science behind emotional aptitude during a recent conference about what kind of students to look for in the college admissions process. Photo by Elizabeth Mercer.

Her audience was admissions officers and counselors from the most elite universities and high schools in the country, all familiar with dissecting GPA and SAT scores to judge the merit of a student who plans to enter college.

But USC Dornsife neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang offered a more intricate picture of the human intellect. Projecting slides of brain scans onto a screen, she showed that logical thinking and emotional aptitude are linked at the biological level.

“We can’t just pour information into students’ heads,” Immordino-Yang said. “Our complex, human-developed minds are inherently social minds. Learning is not a rational process, in the sense that it’s divorced from feeling.”

From Jan. 16 to 18, more than 170 top admissions officers, counselors and educational policymakers nationwide attended the conference “Attributes That Matter: Beyond the Usual in College Admission and Success.” Hosted by the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, the conference focused on the so-called “noncognitive variables” — such as a student’s grit and drive to succeed — that are coveted by colleges and employers.

“If we value things in admission, we do tend to get them,” said the center’s Executive Director Jerome Lucido, who has played a leading role at the national level in initiatives to create more effective and principled college admission practices.

“Our college applications do teach — they teach about our values,” Lucido added. “What we ask for matters.”

The conference showcased universities that have already assessed students’ abilities relating to college success as a formal part of their admissions process.

Among them: Oregon State, which developed an “Insight Resume” based on the research of William Sedlacek, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland at College Park. Sedlacek spoke at the conference about the importance of looking beyond standardized tests and coursework, evaluating students for leadership and the ability to overcome adversity, those who can “work the system” and also realistically appraise strengths and weaknesses.

“The apocryphal 20-something college grad living in his or her mother’s basement . . . should not exist,” said panelist Andrea Brownstein, director of college counseling for a Missouri preperatory school. “That person should have come through an institution that will help them engage and teach them to be someone in the world that will make some change.”

The conference also explored the use of race in admissions, a hot topic with a U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action just months away.

Panelist Kedra Ishop, vice provost and director of admissions for the University of Texas at Austin, was on hand to represent her university, which was sued over its use of race-conscious admissions and now finds its practices under examination by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In admissions we talk about — to the chagrin of scientists — how admissions is both an art and a science,” Ishop said. “The variations that affect a student’s life both in high school and what happens to them when they enroll in college and begin a new world is such an evolving metamorphosis.”

In an evening keynote address, new College Board President David Coleman praised Lucido’s work to improve college access for traditionally underserved students and vowed to recommit the College Board to ideals of equity and access.

Last year, the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice — housed at the USC Rossier School of Education — turned its attention on high school to examine why many young students with dreams of attending college aren’t adequately prepared to enter higher education and, later, to enjoy productive and fulfilling careers.

Find a recap of sessions at this year’s conference