Admissions Psychology

Rose-Hulman plans to ask applicants a set of questions designed to determine if they think they can control their fates. Test of system has found correlation with students' grades and retention rates.

October 27, 2014

Some people have a knack for writing, while others will never write well no matter how hard they try.

That is an example of a question that will be part of a battery that Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology plans to start asking undergraduate applicants to determine if they think they can control their destinies. Students who answer in ways that suggest that they are confident they can control their fates -- or who have a "locus of control" to use the psychological term -- will get an edge in admissions decisions. And the system could start as early as next year.

Rose-Hulman has been administering its test to freshmen for several years now, and then tracked grades and retention rates, and there is a clear correlation between higher locus of control attitudes and successful academic performance, said Jim Goecker, vice president for enrollment management and strategic communications.

In an interview, Goecker said that over his 28 years in admissions work, he has been left wondering increasingly about the value of traditional criteria. "The longer you are in it, the more it's clear that the measures we use are just not adequate." Essays, which he noted have been seen as a way to get to an applicant's personality, are frequently the result of coaching, and evaluating them can be "subjective." What Rose-Hulman is trying to do, he said, is to get "to the essence of success."

'Locus of Control' Questions

  • Grades most often reflect the effort you put into classes.
  • I have largely determined my own career goals.
  • At least once, I have taken a course because it was easy to get a good grade.
  • Teachers sometimes make an early impression of you and then no matter what you do, you cannot change that impression.
  • There are some subjects in which I could never do well.
  • Some students, such as student leaders and athletes, get free rides in classes.
  • I sometimes feel that there is nothing I can do to improve my situation.
  • Studying every day is important.
  • For some courses it is not important to go to class.
  • Doing work on time is always important to me.
  • What I learn is more determined by course requirements than by what I want to learn.
  • I have been known to spend a lot of time making decisions which others do not take seriously.


Goecker said that he started to study the literature on locus of control (the idea has been around for decades, with different tests designed to measure the quality). Rose-Hulman also experimented with various measures of applicants' curiosity, but to date has not found correlations with subsequent academic performance for that index. As a result, the institute is planning to go ahead only with the locus of control test.

He stressed that he didn't think it would have a huge impact on all applicants, and that grades and scores on the ACT or SAT would continue to be used. But he said that the research tracking freshmen indicates that some with high locus of control scores, but slightly lower grades or test scores are in fact doing better academically than other measures would predict. So there will be applicants who might get in, or get a close look, as a result of the test.

The battery of about 30 questions (either yes/no questions or with answers on a five-point scale) will simply be added to the Rose-Hulman application.

We've all heard some students say, "It's the professor's fault I'm not learning," while others may say "I've got to put in more effort," Goecker said. This approach is an effort to identify more of the applicants in the latter camp.

Asked if applicants might answer the questions the way they perceive makes them look better, Goecker said there is a worry about applicants "gaming the system," but he noted that much of college admissions has the same issue.

Further, he noted that the questions are a mix, with some being in "a gray area" where it may not be immediately clear to an applicant what answer would indicate a person who believes he or she is in control. For example, one statement to which students could be asked to respond is: "I am going to college because it is expected of me." For some applicants (many of them no doubt great students), the answer is yes, and there's nothing wrong with that, but those who answer no would get points for locus of control.

Goecker said that because of how the scoring scale works, an applicant wouldn't get a terrible score for honest answers on such questions. At the same time, those who defy expectations (and may be worthy of extra consideration) might be identified.

The Search for Non-Cognitive Criteria

The new approach at Rose-Hulman is part of a broader movement in higher education to look for non-cognitive criteria on which to judge applicants. Goecker said he was concerned that many of those efforts were too subjective, and said that he was attracted to locus of control in part because of the way he could test the idea (as he has the past few years) to get a sense of its effectiveness. He said he didn't know of any other colleges going this way.

Some of the ideas in the Rose-Hulman project sound similar to research by Gallup, which suggests that students who have higher levels of hope may be more likely to succeed academically.

A growing number of colleges have dropped SAT or ACT requirements, but this has been relatively rare among engineering-focused institutions like Rose-Hulman (Worcester Polytechnic Institute being a notable exception). Goecker said he saw continued value (and faculty members see value) in SAT or ACT scores, but that he was hoping to add a tool to identify talent that might not otherwise show up.

Recent years have seen a number of colleges -- generally liberal arts colleges -- experimenting with alternative approaches to admissions.

Bard College last year introduced a system in which applicants may submit four 2,500-word research papers. Those whose papers are judged by the college's faculty members to have produced B+ work or better will be offered admission -- on that basis alone.

Goucher College in September introduced a system in which applicants could be judged on the basis of a two-minute video. And Bennington College followed a few weeks after that with a system in which applicants themselves can decide what to submit for their candidacies to be considered.


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