The Five Greatest Predictors of Student Success

January 11, 2013 — 25 Comments

Educators have focused on helping students through transitions for years now. You know what I mean, don’t you? Transitions like…

  • From elementary school to middle school…
  • From middle school to high school…
  • From high school to college…
  • From college to career (or in some cases, back to their parent’s basement).

Far too often, we’ve focused on predictors such as Grade Point Average or SAT scores. We figure if a kid is smart—they’ll stay in school and continue to be engaged in class. It made sense to us.

Today we’re realizing those are not the most significant categories to measure.


According to First Year Experience programs and our work with over 6,000 schools and organizations worldwide, we have reduced the list of highest predictors of student success (meaning engagement, excellent performance and satisfaction) to what we call the “Big Five.”  The “Big Five” are quite simple. When a student experiences these five realities they are most likely to graduate and excel in life:

1. Getting connected to the right people.

For years the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has confirmed the importance of close, accountable relationships in student success. We continue to find that students who fail to graduate or succeed in school are ones who fail to engage with others outside of class or don’t get involved with activities involving new people. They get stuck and then don’t have a support system to make them want to continue. They also have no accountability strong enough to prevent them from quitting. Research shows that when students get connected to solid people (peers or mentors) they tend to stick with commitments and follow through. The Federal Mentoring Council shares one study of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program found students with mentors earning higher grades than similar students without mentors. A 2007 study discovered that kids in a mentoring relationship at school did better work in class, finished more assigned work, and improved overall in academics—especially in science and in written and oral communication. After graduation, “employees who have had mentors typically earn thousands more than employees who haven’t.” Those people act as “guardrails” preventing youth from shifting or drifting from their course.

History indicates that people intuitively understood the importance of connectedness with accountability, but we have migrated into a more individualistic lifestyle in recent times. Today we have connectedness (often on Facebook) without accountability. Victor Hugo was a brilliant writer, but very distracted. It took him seventeen years to finish Les Miserables. His solution? He asked his servant to take his clothes while he was sleeping. This forced him to stay in his room…and write. This guardrail enabled him to finish Les Miserables—and the world has benefited greatly. Today, students need these guardrails.

2. Possessing adaptability and resilience.

There is a growing body of research in the last decade suggesting that adults have created a fragile population of children. Because parents or teachers have not demanded they overcome adversity or we’ve not leveled consequences to their behavior, kids often become brittle young adults, unable to cope with the demands of life. You can imagine a student like this has trouble with transitions and the hardship of adapting to new situations. Let me illustrate this drift:

— In 2006, 60% of students moved back home after finishing college. In 2010, that number had risen to 80%. It’s more than a bad economy. They’re not career-ready.

– Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein report three out of four teens aren’t even fit to serve in the military due to obesity, failure to graduate high school or their criminal records.

– The MacArthur Foundation funded a research project that said for many kids, the transition into adulthood doesn’t occur until 34 years of age.

I don’t believe this stall in students is because they’re unintelligent or bad kids. I believe we’ve failed to prepare them to cope with demands. We somehow felt that self-esteem meant we should affirm them consistently and prevent them from falling or failing. Sadly, this has had the opposite effect. We have risked too little, we have rescued too quickly and we have raved to easily about our kids—and now they find it hard to navigate transitions. Adaptability and resilience are priceless possessions that predict success far more than good grades and high SAT scores.

3. Developing high emotional intelligence.

You know this already. Forty years ago, educators frequently believed that the kid with the highest IQ would do the best, and later become the most successful. Now, it appears it’s more about EQ than IQ. If a student has high self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management, they’re more likely to graduate, excel and become a leader. It’s more about life skills and soft skills than memorizing lectures and taking exams. The concept of emotional intelligence has proven to be so influential, that it’s now inculcated the planning of educators. For example, policy makers in one state are using school programs to cultivate emotional intelligence and social intelligence in order to prevent crime, increase mental health, deepen student engagement and lower unemployment. In Georgia and Nebraska, we’ve begun working with the department of education to create curriculum that will spark conversations about these soft skills to not only increase graduation rates but make kids employable when they do graduate.

Quite frankly, the reason emotional intelligence has become such a large factor in student success is that kids today struggle more with mental health issues than they did forty years ago. This, in turn, leads to poor performance and high dropout rates. Research in education and psychology now shows the benefits of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs for children as young as preschoolers. Public awareness is catching up to the research. A New York Times editorial reviewed key research findings, saying, “…social and emotional learning programs significantly improve students’ academic performance.” Additional studies also show emotional intelligence is strongly linked to staying in school, avoiding risk behaviors, and improving health, happiness, and life success.

4. Targeting a clear outcome.

This one should be obvious. Whenever a student enters school (high school or college) with a clear goal, they are more likely to stay engaged and finish well. I believe it’s the primary difference between school and sports…or for that matter: work and sports. We love sports in America because it’s often the one place where the goal is clear. Every football field has an end zone; every basketball court has a rim and backboard. We know what the score is and it energizes us. For many, both school and work represent places where we endure the drudgery and eventually disengage.

A university study conducted on “peace of mind” sought to find the greatest factors that contributed to people’s stability. The top five they discovered were:

  1. Refusing to live in the past.
  2. The absence of suspicion, resentment and regret.
  3. Not wasting time and energy fighting conditions you cannot change.
  4. Refusing to indulge in self-pity.
  5. Forcing yourself to get involved with a major goal in your current world.

When author Dan Pink researched what motivates both students and adults at the highest level, he concluded it could be summarized in three elements:

1. Autonomy – The student worked at their pace and created their future.

2. Mastery – The student believed they were growing and improving.

3. Purpose – The student worked on a goal they felt was meaningful.

5. Making good decisions.

This one is almost predictable. The students who succeed make right decisions in and out of class. These are decisions that determine their moral compass, their discretionary time, their study habits, their predisposition to cheat, their outside work and how they deal with setbacks and stress. All of these can be pivotal in determining whether a kid succeeds or surrenders. Like us, students must keep a clear objective in mind. May I illustrate?

The team who created the popular game Angry Birds spent eight years and almost all their money on more than fifty games before their big success occurred. By 2012, Pinterest was among the fastest-growing websites ever, but it had struggled for some time. In CEO Ben Silbermann’s words, it had “catastrophically small numbers” for a year. He said “if he had listened to popular startup advice he probably would have quit.”

James Dyson went through 5,126 prototypes before arriving at his “revolutionary vacuum cleaner.” We all know Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times at inventing the light bulb. The popular company Groupon nearly went out of business—but went on to a “meteoric rise.” And do you know where WD-40’s name came from? It literally means “Water Displacement—40th Attempt.” Somebody kept a clear goal in mind. So must students.

  • Bev Payne

    Oh Tim, you are brilliant, but you are scaring me to death! 34 years old before adulthood? OUCH! I’m reading Artificial Maturity now and marking every page. I can see your evidence right in front of me, even with just a four year old. I remember hearing you say once that the most important thing to focus on is teaching a young child how to deal with his emotions. I’m in the thick of that today! I’m reading iY next. Thank you Tim. I’m truly hanging on your every word as it relates to parenting. You are the best! May you sell millions of copies of AM. Fantastic book! Bev

    • Thanks so much for the encouragement, Bev. I’m glad to hear that you are finding AM and iY helpful. I applaud you for applying what you’re learning with your four-year-old. I know you’ll do a great job leading your family well!

  • Alan Youngblood

    Great article, Tim! I will be using this article for sure!

  • Mannwerdung

    By the way, I disagree on your thoughts on Early Generation Y: I know lots of people of that age (including me) who at least have these issues as well:
    – Self-absorbed
    – Ambiguous about future
    – Postponed maturation
    We were told that our problem was that we were the first generation to have unlimited access to everything with no difference. In contrast, I have come to know lots of 90ies-born people that are very focused and know how to integrate technology and information overload into their lives.
    Maybe it’s not about generations, but about family histories and what they learned in their early years. Might be that information overflow supports that families don’t give the “right messages” to children anymore because the parents are self-absorbed themselves. I still think not mainly a whole generation is to blame but a whole society’s mindset towards leaving all options available.

    • I appreciate you weighing in on the issues facing Generation iY. My writing and research has focused on identifying broad characteristics present in this generation. I recognize that with any generalization, there will always be exceptions. I hope to provide parents, teachers, coaches and youth workers with tools to lead this next generation well. I believe in this generation but I constantly challenge adults to lead them better. I frequently remind people that it’s a lot easier to help your children grow up if you’ve done so yourself 🙂

      Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  • Nick

    Dear Tim-

    Thank you so much for your persistent clear analysis of the our cultural shortcomings. As a retired special education teacher your analysis rings absolutely true. Over my thirty years of teaching in New York state, it became apparent that what was intended to be a system designed to help handicapped students had become for far too many an academic welfare system (in the worst meaning of the phrase). And not only are the five predictors success applicable to students – they are vital for all of us at any age – and it is never too late to improve.

    • Thanks for adding your perspective, Nick. I appreciate you sharing your experience and confirming that these predictors are so critical. Great reminder that they apply not just to students but any age.

  • Tim,

    I received a link to this article from a colleague of mine in the Air Force (thanks Bill). Good stuff… what I focused in on were the TOPICS and the VERBS. So, I read:

    clear outcome
    emotional intelligence
    adaptability and resilience
    right people

    …and then I see:

    Getting connected

    So, that first group is all about the “skills” that can be studied, looked at, enhanced, acknowledged and – to a degree – assessed. Though – and as a former high school teacher and state teaching mentor (in California) – not as “accurately” as a SAT score…

    BUT…and here’s the big deal…the SECOND grouping of words:

    Getting connected

    Those verbs – to me – indicate something happening in the future. So, I get the question is: “Do I base someone’s performance on what they DID or what they are prepared to DO?”

    Big question…thanks Tim for prompting this early-Saturday-morning-thinking.


    • Great analysis, Jason. Thanks for taking time to really process and provide these insights. That is a great question – and I think it gives us an excellent lens to evaluate both past performance and untapped potential in the students we lead.

    • Dan Marmar

      Great question, begs another:

      How do we measure preparedness to DO?


      What we declare we hope/aspire to do is not nearly as good an indicator of what we WILL do as what we did yesterday…

      As someone mobilizing high-performing youth leaders (read, what they did yesterday) to engage their lower-performing peers and give them a hand up (teaching, counseling, mediation, etc.), I would very much value a good measure of preparedness to do, to assess the short term impact of our interventions on those who most need to change course.

      Any insights appreciated.

      Thanks Jason, and of course Tim.

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  • I work with struggling community college students on a daily basis, many who are on academic probation. I believe your assessment rings true. I especially find this particular excerpt compelling:

    “If a student has high
    self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship
    management, they’re more likely to graduate, excel and become a leader.
    It’s more about life skills and soft skills than memorizing lectures and
    taking exams.”
    This is exactly what I have found in my work. I primarily help students develop their self-awareness and self-management skills. Social awareness and relationship management definitely come into play, as well. Some of our students work with me only (on study skills and life skills) , while others work with a subject-specific tutor. Some do both. Those who work with me on developing those life skills and study skills have earned “As” in their classes. Those who just receive tutoring, generally will improve, but in absence of more general life skills development, the success rate is much lower.

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  • Brick in the Wall

    I have been back in the game of teaching for just 6 months now. As a high school teacher at a “high-achieving” school (as indicated by NCLB standards), I just recently found the problem with my students, but could not put words to it; you nailed it, though! Adaptability and resilience. They lack it.
    Recently, one of my highest IQ students whined about an upcoming essay assigned as homework, “Aren’t you aware that most students can’t focus outside of school?” I was flabbergasted and speechless. Fortunately, I stood my ground, and the essay is still due.

    When it comes time, will I feel comfortable…nay, would it be ethical of me to write these students recommendation letters for college?

  • Your words should be shared with every student. Far too few know these steps to make learning and education an experience in living in the world instead of in a protective bubble.

    It should come as no surprise that I might comment on your first point. My blog is named ‘only connect’ and centers on providing advice for those who want information and advice from those who have had success in education and beyond. Today, for example, a leader in the world of fighting for women’s issues talks about how her education at her university prepared her to make her mark. The photo below shows Anushay meeting Angelia Jolie at a ceremony honoring women who change lives.

    Most of the guest entries are not from people quite as intimidatingly successful. Instead, the voices of current students who have changed themselves and others through simple things are often the inspiration young people can read about and then implement simply into their own lives.

    Thank you again for these invaluable words.

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  • Nancy

    Thank you, Tim, for your research-based assessment of the “The Five Greatest Predictors of Student Success!” I absolutely love your statement “It’s more about life skills and soft skills than memorizing lectures and taking exams.” More emphasis MUST be placed on these five predictors! After all, the world has changed and we need to replace static content with real-world opportunity!

  • Chelsea

    A very interesting and well written post. I work in higher education as a student advisor and although I have been aware of some of these intangible motivational forces, shuch as emotional intelligence, autonomy, mastery, and purpose, I have been frusterated by my inability to instill them in students and their lack of willingness to work on areas that will help foster them, such as getting involved with the university.

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  • Jaime S

    So how do you measure “adaptability and resilience”? And where can I find a study that compares correlations of this and “success”, however you’re measuring that (surely it wouldn’t be something subjective ;)) with IQ and conscientiousness as predictors, also I wonder if “adaptability and resilience” covaries significantly with IQ and conscientiousness! I’d be willing to bet that it does. Also, there are different operational definitions of “emotional intelligence” that are popularly used. Is it safe to assume that the one being used here is equivalent to high conscientiousness, high agreeableness, low neuroticism, high extraversion? (Personality factors from the “Big Five” personality factors, strange coincidence isn’t it?”

    • Hi Jaime,

      We agree with and use the big five arenas of emotional intelligence and refer to the EQi as an assessment (Emotional Quotient Inventory).

      Here is an article from Daniel Goleman on how EQ and IQ predict success:


      • Jaime S

        Thanks for the response Mr. Elmore, I’m skeptical about emotional intelligence, but I don’t want to be closed-minded about it. This article interests me, because even if I want to question whether the measure of emotional intelligence correlates with personality traits, if it’s true that emotional intelligence programs can be beneficial then it’s still something to pay attention to. So thank you for this information, maybe it will be beneficial in my career.