The Impact of Personality Tests on College Admissions

When you think about what colleges are looking for in the college admission process, what comes to mind? GPA? SAT or ACT scores? Class rank?

How about “locus of control?”

According to Inside Higher Ed, this is the latest measure Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology is planning to include in its undergraduate admissions process.

Unusually for a college application, this assessment is designed to test applicants’ personality, rather than their intelligence or academic performance

So what is “locus of control”, why does it matter to Rose-Hulman, and why should it matter to you?

What is “locus of control?”

“Are you going to college because you feel it’s expected of you?”

If you answered “no”…congratulations!  You just increased your chances of admission at Rose-Hulman.

This is just one of a series of 30 questions from their locus of control assessment, which also includes statements such as:
– “Grades most often reflect the effort you put into classes,” and 
– “Some people have a knack for writing, while others will never write well no matter how hard they try.”

(If you’d like to take the complete test with all 30 questions, click here for an online version of the assessment)

Locus of control – which is closely related to self-esteem and self-efficacy (Judge 2003) – measures the extent to which students believe that they are in control of the events and outcomes in their lives.

Students with a strong internal locus of control see events in their lives as being largely within their control, whereas students with a strong external locus of control tend to view the events in their lives as being influenced primarily by factors outside of their control.

This may seem like an unusual assessment to include on a college application. But it turns out that there are some very good reasons why colleges might want to measure it.

Why do colleges care?

Personality Word Cloud Concept In Red CapsThis is not Rose-Hulman’s first attempt to measure locus of control. The university has been giving the test to incoming freshmen for several years, and found that students with a stronger internal locus of control tend to earn better grades, and are more likely to return for their sophomore year.

Student retention is an enormous issue for colleges and universities. In fact, there is an entire research journal specifically devoted to the topic.  When freshmen earn poor grades, drop out, or transfer to another school, this hurts the university’s reputation and ranking, reducing its ability to attract future students. 

It also has an enormous financial impact. In a 2013 report, the Educational Policy Institute estimated that attrition resulted in a total annual loss of nearly $16.5 billion dollars for the 1,669 colleges and universities included in the study – an average loss of nearly $10 million.

If measuring applicants’ locus of control could help Rose-Hulman predict which students are most likely to be successful, and reduce the attrition rate among accepted students, this would be of enormous value to the university.

Why should you care?
So far, Rose-Hulman is the only school that is planning to include a locus of control assessment on its application.  But even if you are not applying to Rose-Hulman, there are a number of reasons why this is worth paying attention to:

1.It may be the start of a new trend in college admissions.

It is possible that Rose-Hulman’s decision to evaluate applicants’ locus of control could be the beginning of a movement among colleges to evaluate hopeful students on a wider range of attributes than their academic performance.

Even if colleges aren’t specifically interested in locus of control, they are always going to be interested in predicting student performance, retention, and attrition rates, for all of the reasons described above.

And the fact is that a number of different psychological characteristics — including”grit,” mindset, and goal orientation — have been demonstrated to predict students’ performance in college beyond what would be expected from GPA and test scores alone.  (I will be sharing more information about goal orientation in my upcoming webinar.) 

In fact, Michigan State University has also been experimenting with offering a variety of personality assessments to students who have been deferred, in order to determine which of them will ultimately receive offers of admission.

If other colleges start moving in this direction, and incorporating more personality measures into their application process, it will become increasingly important for students who want to gain admission to top colleges to identify & develop these personality strengths.  

2. It’s a valuable clue about what colleges are looking for in their applicants

Rose-Hulman may be the first university to include a formal measure of locus of control in their application, but this doesn’t mean that other universities are ignoring it.  Even if other schools aren’t testing for these traits directly, they are still looking for evidence that students have what it takes to be successful. It’s just that the way it shows up on their applications is less quantifiable.

For instance, students with a strong internal locus of control will be more likely to write application essays with stories about taking responsibility for their actions, learning from their failures (rather than blaming others for their problems), and working hard to achieve their goals – all traits that colleges find highly desirable.

Approved College ApplicationSo, if you want to maximize your chances of admission, it is a good idea to identify your personality strengths, and highlight them in your applications.  

For example, if grit is one of your strengths, you might write an essay describing an example of a time when you persisted in pursuing an important goal over an extended period of time, despite encountering numerous obstacles, until you finally achieved it.  This would be in line with most colleges’ preference for students who have displayed a deep level of commitment to a few activities, rather than superficial involvements with many different organizations.

So, even if schools are not incorporating formal assessments of personality characteristics into their applications, students can still benefit from identifying their strengths and highlighting these traits in their applications.

Understanding & highlighting your personality strengths is also important in applications & interviews for jobs, internships, and graduate programs. 

3. Even if these traits don’t help you get into college, they can help you succeed once you get there.

Even if the majority of colleges never incorporate formal personality assessments like locus of control into their admissions algorithms, the fact remains that personality characteristics like locus of control, grit, goal orientation, and mindset have a significant, quantifiable effect on students’ performance in college…not to mention their happiness, health, and success later in life.

So, while identifying & developing positive personality traits like locus of control may not (yet!) directly improve your chance of being admitted to a prestigious college, it is likely to affect your ability to succeed once you get there.

So, regardless of what colleges choose to do, if you want to increase your chances of success later in life it is worthwhile to focus on developing these positive traits!  

This is one of the reasons why helping students understand their personality traits, and identify & develop their character strengths, is such an important part of the work we do in our coaching programs. 

How to develop an internal locus of control:

If you’d like to improve your score on the locus of control test, there are a number of ways you can do this.  

  1. Practice identifying the choices you have in any situation.

    Focusing on the choices you have available in any situation can help you to shift towards a more internal locus of control, by directing your focus away from the things you can’t control, and towards the elements of the situation that you can control.

    Even if you don’t get to choose the situations in your life, you always have the power to choose how you will respond to those situations.

    For example, you might feel frustrated because you are stuck at home babysitting your little sister when you wanted to be out with your friends.  Your automatic reaction may be to spend the night feeling upset, focusing on how mean your parents are, or how unfair this situation is.  But if you practice asking yourself: “what choices do I have in this situation?” you might see that you could choose to respond differently, and make the best of the situation.  Maybe you could use the time to finish your homework, so you have more time to spend with friends later.  Or you could find a fun game to play with your sister, and find a way to enjoy the evening.  So, you might not have control of the situation, but you do get to control how you respond to it.

    Identifying the choices you have in any situation may be tough to do if you’re not used to it, but the more you practice the easier it will get, and the more you will recognize how much control you actually have.

  1. Change your vocabulary (“I have to” –> “I will”, or “I choose to”)
    As illustrated in the example above, very few situations are actually completely out of your control. However, in our everyday language we often use words that imply we have little or no control over what is happening to us. (How many times have you said “I have to go to practice tomorrow,” or “I can’t talk right now, I have to finish my homework?”)

    For example, let’s say you have a test coming up tomorrow, or a big project that’s due.  You may feel like you “have to” work on it.  But is that really true?  Are you being forced to do the work?  The truth is that you don’t have to do the work…you could choose not to do it, and to accept the bad grade – and the lecture from your parents – that are likely to follow.  Of course, you probably don’t want to make that choice, because you wouldn’t like the outcome!  But you could, if you wanted to.  

    So, next time you find yourself saying that you “have to” do something, consciously stop and correct yourself.  “I want to get a good grade on tomorrow’s test, so I’m going to spend this time studying,” is a much more accurate statement than “I have to study”, because it highlights the fact that YOU are, in fact, in control of that decision. This can help you to shift towards a more internal locus of control.

  2. Set & achieve goals
    Another great way to shift towards a more internal locus of control is to practice setting and accomplishing goals.  

    When you set out to achieve something, and succeed in reaching that objective, it can strengthen your belief in your own ability to control important events and outcomes in your life. 

    In addition to developing your locus of control, achieving self-created goals can be an extremely powerful strategy for improving self-confidence, building self-efficacy, and creating stronger and more lasting motivation.

    To get this process started, try choosing an area where you often feel you don’t have much control, and set a very small goal that will be easy for you to achieve. Once you achieve it, set a slightly bigger goal to work towards. Over time, this will help you to recognize that you have more control than you thought!

    I will be sharing more information about how to set & achieve your goals in my FREE upcoming goal-setting webinar, so if you’d like to learn more about the types of goals that will be most effective for strengthening your locus of control and improving your performance, you’re welcome to join me!

Your turn!

If you haven’t taken the locus of control test yet, check it out and see how you score!

How did your locus of control measure up? Were you more external, or internal?

Which of the exercises above could you use to shift towards a more internal locus of control?

I hope you enjoyed this article!

If you have any comments or feedback, or want to share your results from the locus of control test, please feel free to post a comment below!


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Judge, T. A., Erez, A., Bono, J. E., & Thoresen, C. J. (2002). Are measures of self-esteem, neuroticism, locus of control, and generalized self-efficacy indicators of a common core construct?. Journal of personality and social psychology83(3), 693.


By |January 22nd, 2015|Categories: Mindset|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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