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Conscientiousness may explain why women tend to have higher college GPAs than predicted by their SATs, U of M study suggests

2016 U of M graduates
MinnPost photo by Tom Nehil
One analysis of data involving almost 500,000 undergraduate and graduate students found that women’s GPAs are, on average, 0.24 points higher than those of men with the same SAT or ACT results.

It’s well documented that women typically obtain higher GPAs in college than men with similar admission test (SAT or ACT) scores.

That difference is not inconsequential. One analysis of data involving almost 500,000 undergraduate and graduate students found that women’s GPAs are, on average, 0.24 points higher (on the standard 4-point GPA scale) than those of men with the same SAT or ACT results.

This phenomenon has led some people to claim that college admissions tests are faulty, while others argue that women get better grades because they choose “softer” course loads and majors. 

Of course, there are other possibilities. Perhaps women are bringing specific psychological traits and behaviors to colleges — ones not captured by SATs or ACTs — that enable them to outperform the predictions of their admission test scores.

And that is exactly what a team of psychologists at the University of Minnesota has found. In a paper published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the U of M researchers report that college admission test scores are poor at predicting women’s performance in college because they fail to measure and account for a specific personality trait: conscientiousness.

They also found that women’s college-course choices play a role in their higher-than-predicted grade points, but only a minor one.

An important variable

“Conscientiousness is one of those five major personality traits in which people vary,” explained Heidi Keiser, the study’s lead author and a PhD candidate in industrial-organizational psychology program at the U of M, in an interview with MinnPost. “It encompasses things like dependability, persistence and achievement striving.”

“It’s not the type of thing that’s measured by admission tests,” she added, “but it’s an important variable that will predict a student’s performance in college.”

Studies assessing personality traits have repeatedly shown that women tend to have — on average — higher scores than men when it comes to conscientiousness. So Keiser and her colleagues devised a study to see if that personality difference might explain why admission test scores are less predictive of academic success for women than for men. 

They also conducted a second study to determine what role, if any, course choice plays in women’s higher-than-predicted GPAs. 

Study #1

For the first study, Keiser and her colleagues compared the grades earned by 1,976 undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory psychology course at the University of Minnesota during three different semesters in the years 2011 and 2012. 

The course was chosen for the study because it’s highly structured in terms of its instruction, and grading standards are consistent from semester to semester.

All the students were given a personality profile assessment on the first day of the course, and their academic performance in the course was electronically tracked throughout the semester. The researchers also had the students’ ACT scores, which were obtained from the university’s registrar office.

When the data was analyzed, Keiser and her colleagues found that female students did better in the course — in general — than would be expected based on their ACT scores alone. 

“But when we factored in conscientiousness, we were able to correct that underprediction,” said Keiser. 

The data suggested, in fact, that the women’s higher average scores of conscientiousness explained at least 20 percent of their higher grades. 

Keiser and her colleagues then dove deeper into the data to see how the conscientiousness factor might be raising the women’s grades. They split the coursework in the psychology class into its heavily “cognitive” components (tests and quizzes) and its more “discretionary, effortful” behaviors, such as attending and participating in class, turning in homework and doing extra-credit assignments.

They found that the ACT tests were no worse at predicting the women’s success at the tests and quizzes than the men’s. But the ACT results significantly underestimated the women’s performance on the elements of the coursework that required persistent effort, or conscientiousness.

Study #2

In their second study, the researchers analyzed data collected from about 400,000 students who had entered dozens of U.S. colleges and universities in the years 1995-1997 or 2006-2009. The data included the students’ SAT scores, their first-year GPA and their individual grades in courses. The researchers also used a course-difficulty index to rate each course taken by the students. (The index is based not just on the difficulty of the course’s content, but also on the level of the academic skills of other students who typically enroll in the course.)

They found that men were more likely to sign up for more difficult courses — in other words, for courses in which both male and female students tended to achieve worse grades that expected given their academic history. This factor, however, explained only a small portion — about 8 percent — of the higher-than-expected (based on their admission test scores) GPAs earned by women.

“Course difficulty to some degree does explain why females earn higher grades than their test scores alone would predict,” said Keiser. “But it’s a much smaller piece, and plays a smaller role, in this overall phenomenon than the role of conscientiousness.”

A nuanced situation

Still, conscientiousness and course choice together accounted for less than 30 percent of the gender gap in the predictive value of admission tests on academic performance.

As Keiser and her colleagues note in their write-up of their study, “This leads to questions as to whether the unexplained gender effects are attributable to additional omitted variables, or whether they do reflect bias in the test.” 

“A lot of people jump to the conclusion that the tests are biased,” said Keiser. “But our findings show that it’s much more nuanced than that. We show in our paper that the SAT and ACT do a very good job at predicting the things that they are designed to measure.”

“But the determinants of college performance are broader than just admission test scores,” she added. “There are other important pieces of the puzzle that we need to be measuring and accounting for — like conscientiousness. Admissions tests are just one piece of that.”

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Journal of Applied Psychology website, but the full study is, unfortunately, behind a paywall. One of the study’s co-authors, U of M psychologist Paul Sackett, is a consultant to the College Board, which administers SAT tests. Keiser said the College Board provided data for the study, but had no input into the study’s design or conclusions.

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Comments (3)

Measure of conscientiousness

Re: "“But when we factored in conscientiousness, we were able to correct that underprediction,” said Keiser. "

How did Study 1 or Study 2 measure conscientiousness?

Hard to quantify

I'm not sure a number could be assigned to it, but I think this bit from "Study #1" at least "sort of" explains the phenomenon.

“… its more “discretionary, effortful” behaviors, such as attending and participating in class, turning in homework and doing extra-credit assignments.

They found that the ACT tests were no worse at predicting the women’s success at the tests and quizzes than the men’s. But the ACT results significantly underestimated the women’s performance on the elements of the coursework that required persistent effort, or conscientiousness.”

Conscientiousness

I never taught a college class, so I can't speak directly to the conclusions of either study, but they certainly are in line with my experience as a high school teacher. While there were certainly academic stars and slugs of both genders, a brief analysis of the grades from the last semester I taught (I can't believe I still have those…) shows a significant difference in academic achievement. 35% of the boys got a "C" or better in my Western Civ. class 20 years ago, while 56% of the girls earned a "C" or better. 8% of the boys earned a "D" or an "F," while 3% of the girls earned a "D" or an "F." The percentages, for nit-pickers, won't add up to 100% because I rounded up.

I didn't provide a lot of opportunities for extra credit, but attendance and participation in class did make a difference, and in both those areas, the girls generally performed better than the boys, with better attendance rates and better participation – as a group. There were always individuals of both genders who stood out, either above or below the norm for a particular class, and over the course of a semester.