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On Defining Success

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

People often ask me, “what does my child (or what do I) need to do to be admitted to a place like Harvard, Stanford, or MIT?” It’s true that selective institutions like those in the Ivy league value traditional metrics of academic and extracurricular success: strong grades, a challenging curriculum, and achievements in the sciences, arts, debate, or olympiads. This hasn’t changed. But in light of increasing application numbers and a general improvement in the quality of applicants, the question of how a student achieved success is also of interest.

COVID-19 accelerated the pivot toward test-optional policies and it’s becoming increasingly easy for students to “pay to play” at a high level in research and academic arenas. Top colleges and universities are responding by transforming their selection processes. For them, it’s easy to admit students who accelerated in high school, but ultimately, they want students who’ll thrive long into the future. Informed by recent work in psychology and sociology, they’re elevating “non-cognitives” in their evaluation process. These are skills and qualities that fall outside of traditional definitions of intelligence, but help students achieve success -- and positively contribute to their peers and society. So then maybe a better question to ask is: “What mindset and skills will best enable me (or my child) to succeed, now and always?”

Universities actively search an application for these non-cognitives, particularly, in an applicant’s activities, essays, and recommendations. One resource informing their processes is the Making Caring Common Project (MCC), from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In fact, Stu Schmill, Dean of Admissions at MIT, has long supported the initiative. MCC recently defined eight noncogs correlated with success that are commonly valued by top colleges:

  • Compassion - Compassion is often used interchangeably with empathy, but it’s a fundamentally different quality. Empathy allows a person to take the perspective and recognize the emotions of others. And while compassion involves this too, it is ultimately about action -- about a motivation to relieve the suffering of or to help others. Compassion has been connected to increased resiliency, improved self-esteem, and the formation of deeper emotional connections with peers. For universities, compassion is a proxy for community orientation, a desire to make the world a better place, and for a student’s ability to connect and uplift their classmates. The Greater Good Magazine of UC Berkeley offers a useful guide of how to cultivate compassion in your everyday life.

  • Curiosity - Curiosity, or “a passion for learning” as it is often described, is among the most important qualities in the college application process (and, I would argue, in life). Simply put, it is the desire to learn and understand new things and how they work - to overcome knowledge deficiencies and solve challenges. Colleges use this quality as a proxy for a student’s internal motivation to learn -- rather than for external validators like grades, success, or wealth. Recent work has also connected curiosity with an ability to connect with others and improved mental health.

  • Gratitude - This is one of the simplest noncogs, but perhaps the most overlooked. Gratitude in its purest form is a sense of appreciation for the things a person has been given. Those who express gratitude regularly tend to be happier and more optimistic and more capable of forming lasting relationships.

  • Grit - This concept was originally defined by the psychologist Dr. Angela Duckworth. It is a person’s ability to maintain a positive outlook and energy despite adversity on the pathway to their long term goals. Duckworth has found that grit is the most potent predictor of future success, more than IQ, wealth, or intelligence -- and that without grit, talent can languish undeveloped. Based on these findings, it’s clear why colleges value it!

  • Growth Mindset - How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m just not very good at math,” or “Running isn’t in my genes. Many mistakenly believe that achievement is the product of innate talent and capacity, that you either have qualities like athleticism or intelligence, or you don’t. Evidence suggests this simply isn’t the case, that the brain is far more plastic and malleable than previously thought. Through dedicated, thoughtful, hard work, anything is possible. So embrace a growth mindset, or the understanding that intelligence, skills, and talents can be improved through hardwork and dedication.

  • Perspective-Taking - This is fairly self-descriptive, it is a person’s ability to perceive the emotions (affective) our thoughts and beliefs (cognitive) of another individual. It is linked to prosocial tendencies, improved conflict resolution skills, and the ability to form relationships across different groups. Colleges often use this ability as a proxy for a student’s maturity and ability to work and live in a diverse community.

  • Purpose - To have purpose entails a commitment to a cause beyond yourself. It is a goal(s) that has meaning to you and is also of consequence to the world around you. Purpose is what motivates you and the destination you work towards. This noncog is perhaps the most subjective and hardest to define -- in part because it is an internal variable you define for yourself.

There is no recipe for admission to a top university, so the best advice I can give is to work on yourself, do what you love, and lay the strong mental, emotional, and organizational foundations you need to thrive, wherever you find yourself. There are few sustainable shortcuts to success in life -- the things worth doing often force us to push beyond our current capacities. That process can be uncomfortable. But these skills and qualities are just like muscles, requiring continual flexing and attention to develop them.

I’ll provide more resources on these noncogs as well as others I believe strongly correlate to success. So please check back in!


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