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What Sets Thrivers and Divers Apart in College?

So, what sets thrivers and divers apart in college? Four economists sought to answer that question.




Is your daughter or son ready to head off to college? You (and they) may have conflicting feelings—relieved that the application process is over and yet somewhat apprehensive about whether they will thrive in college. After all, if the university mostly admits students in the top ten percent of their high school class, most of these students, once in college, will no longer be in the top ten percent. As one former dean said to the entering law students, it is simple math. Only 10 percent can be in the top 10 percent.


So, what sets thrivers and divers apart in college? Fours economists sought to answer that question. Graham Beattie, Jean-William P. Laliberté, Catherine Michaud-Leclerc, and Philip Oreopoulos surveyed approximately 6,0000 first-year economics students at the University of Toronto in the 2016-2017 academic year. They then compared the top ten percent (the Thrivers) and bottom ten percent (the Divers) in terms of academic performance. How did they differ in terms of study habits, attitudes, and personal experiences?


Their study had some interesting findings.


First, as expected, the students’ high school grades were a strong predictor of their academic performance at college.


But several non-academic measures also helped predict success. Notably, the study found, “conscientiousness, expected study hours and purpose-driven motivation were strongly associated with successful and failed transition to postsecondary education.”


Second, poor time management, lack of study hours, and tendencies to cram for exams were the habits most strongly related with poor overall performance. Divers tended to study fewer hours (relative to Thrivers and other students) in high school and in their first semester of college. When not facing deadlines, Divers studied on average three hours less per week than the overall average. Thrivers, in contrast, on average studied over three hours more per week relative to their classmates. Thus the difference between Thrivers and Divers was about seven hours per week. Overall when not faced with an immediate deadline, a large share of Divers studied five hours per week or less. While some Thrivers studied less than ten hours per week, many were likely to study between 15 and 30 hours per week. It wasn’t that Thrivers innately loved studying or found it easy to manage their time. Many Thrivers reported that managing their study time was challenging. As the study’s authors noted, “This is consistent with the previous finding that conscientiousness is an important factor in predicting success in the high school to university transition, as students who can force themselves to work hard even when they do not want to are more likely to thrive.”


Third, Thrivers were significantly more likely than Divers to seek out the free university resources available to them and to meet with course instructors and free tutors. In contrast, the Divers were more likely to rely on paid tutors and meet with an academic advisor.

Fourth, Divers reported that they found the transition to college much more challenging than the overall average. (In terms of demographics, international students were overrepresented among Divers.) Divers were more likely to report feeling stressed and depressed and facing personal issues outside of school. They recognized that the other students understood the material better than themselves and were less confident about their ability to do well academically the next semester. Thrivers, in contrast, reported to be more satisfied with their life and their university experience.


However, several other factors may be at play here. Divers, the study found, tended to work for pay more hours per week than an average student, had lower expectations about their grades, and were less likely to aspire to go to graduate school. Thrivers, in contrast, spent less time at a paid job and, to some extent, checking their phone. Finally, the study pointed out factors that were highly correlated with Thrivers and Divers. This is not the same as causation. (For example, pool drownings and ice cream consumption are highly correlated, but eating ice cream does not increase the risk of drowning.)


It can be also quite shocking (and depressing) if your child is not a Thriver. Perhaps the admissions office made a mistake, your child thinks. Perhaps I don’t belong here.


So, what advice can you offer your child?


First, recognize that every student has special talents, including your son and daughter. So, no the admissions office did not make a mistake. Over the next four years your child will see the special talents of others and in themselves.


Second, college is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a significant transition on an academic, social, and personal level. Rarely, do students hit their academic stride with the first exam or semester. The academic study covered only the fall and winter terms of the freshman year. So we don’t know how the Thrivers and Divers did academically in later semesters.


Third, encourage your child to use the college resources. Many students face challenges managing their time. The college will likely have an academic advising office to help students develop better study habits. (Here, for example, are some tips that Rice University offers. Study Skills and Time Management) Free tutoring is often available. Plus, encourage your child to reach out to the professors.


Fourth, one likely reaction from the parent is “I’m spending all this money on tuition. Study more and party less.” But simply sitting in the library will not improve grades, especially if the student is snapchatting. Divers, for example, were less likely to write down thoughts and ideas when studying. Thus, encourage your child to also reach out to the academic advising office for help on “active studying” skills.


Fifth, to prevent your child falling deeper into the academic trap of depression and lower grades, encourage your child to use the school counseling services. Also remind them how they overcame past challenges, and focus on incremental task-based goals (such as drafting an outline for a paper due at the end of the semester and setting up a time with the professor for feedback on the outline) rather than performance-based goals (such as getting an A in the course). (More on this in our next post.) Small gains (and reasons to celebrate) are achieving these daily and weekly tasks. Moreover, it is likely that accomplishing the short- and mid-term tasks will start lifting the grades. Plus, the repeated daily and weekly tasks can help instill good study habits.


Finally, Divers were less likely to remind themselves of their personal goals. Thrivers, in contrast, were more likely to remind themselves about their goals and motivations for being in college. So remind your child why they originally wanted to go to that university. It was unlikely that their primary reason was to be in the top 10 percent.


All the best to the incoming freshmen (and their parents).


The study is by Graham Beattie, Jean-William P. Laliberté, Catherine Michaud-Leclerc, and Philip Oreopoulos, What Sets College Thrivers And Divers Apart? A Contrast in Study Habits, Attitudes, and Mental Health, NBER Working Paper 23588 (July 2017), available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w23588

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