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Just be Yourself: The role of personality in coping with applying to college

Posted by on Monday, August 17, 2009 in Advice for Parents, Preparing for College.

Thanks to many of you for the signs of support and interest in my doctoral research.  I wanted to post some additional information about my research and what we found in hopes that it may be helpful to you and your family.  Please forgive my academese.

The college choice requires the adolescent to gather and synthesize vast amounts of information, reconcile sometimes competing personal and familial goals, and manage a range of emotions.  This decision process represents a major developmental crisis with which the adolescent must cope.  Scholars have noted that psychological strain and heightened anxiety may commonly accompany the college search.  One explanation for the adverse reactions some adolescents have to the college search is that some employ less effective coping strategies to manage their emotions and behaviors to address or adapt to the stress of this major decision than others.  The purpose of the study was to ascertain the nature of the relationship between Myers-Briggs personality preferences and college search related coping behaviors in a sample (n=285) of 11th and 12th grade students at a high school in central Tennessee.

We found that introverts were much more likely to cope by disengaging from the college choice process, while extraverts were much more likely to engage in the choice process.  In addition, considering whether someone was an introvert or extravert significantly added to our ability to predict how someone would cope with the college search process after controlling for important demographic variables (gender, ethnicity, first-generation status, and academic achievement level).   We also found that people who preferred a more structured and orderly approach to life (J-types) were siginificantly more likely to cope by trying to deal directly with the source of the stress (called primary coping, which has been shown to be the most effective kind of coping).  In fact, whether you were a J or a P on the Myers-Briggs significantly predicted how you would cope with the college application process.

So what does that mean?  First, the adage that the more organized you are in your college search, the better off you’ll be, seems to be great advice.  In this world there are pilers and there are filers.  You know those pilers, they keep papers in stacks and don’t mind a little clutter in their rooms.  And then there are filers where there’s a place for everything, and everthing is in its place – order rules.  When it comes to applying to college, embrace your inner filer, even if you are a piler.

The more troubling takeaway though, is the indication that introverts are much more likely to disengage from the college search process.  There may be some dynamics of the college search and application experience that may explain this tendency.  One factor may be the very public and social nature of the college search.  Often, when others around the student (employers, peers, teachers, or family members) know that he or she is applying to college, it becomes a recurring focus of conversation.  This constant attention on such a highly personal decision may overload the introvert and thus trigger a retreat coping response.  In addition, a central requirement of the college application process is that a college applicant must externally present or package (some would argue) various components of him or herself for evaluation by colleges.  This task may be perceived as too daunting for an introvert.  In reaction, the introvert may retract to collect his or her thoughts and deal with the stress alone.

Whatever the explanation, the place of the introverted student (estimated to be between 35-45% of the American high school population) in college admissions is a topic that derserves a deeper dialogue.  I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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  • Andrea

    August 17th, 2009

    Introvert or extrovert, I think independence is key in the college search process.

    Considering all the resources that are available (college websites,, college guides in bookstores) I think most students are able to conduct their own college search and draft a list of schools that are good for them. If introverts, as you hypothesize, tend to disengage when everybody and their neighbor is curious about the process, then that is one more reason for them to lay off! Since college is for them, they should be the ones leading the search.

  • vandy80&13

    August 18th, 2009

    Thom, I was struck with your use of introvert/extrovert based on Meyers Briggs. In case you missed the following article, I think there is some room for thought about the Coping Introvert and the Introverted College Applicant..question being what does that introverted kind of personality need to fully and effectively engage in the tasks of conveying Self to Others at a crucial juncture where one is evaluated for “fit” by college admissions staff members, teachers and reference letter writers.

    you were talking about introversion and the college application process…I digress. I found this article from Wm and Mary helpful a decade back when I had child, (now a highly socialized and outgoing college graduate) who spent hours in solitary study and reflection at times in early years. His personality was more guarded and he was not as good at building communication lines with extroverted chatty teachers as a child, but as he approached college application season..he became an effective communicator. I would conjecture that many students entering Vanderbilt had hobbies/interests growing up that involved mastery of certain skills that were enhanced by hours alone in intense study and reflection. Solitude can be a great foundation for expansive learning. I also think that managing alone time and even managing outright loneliness are related topics and skills that are important to the college years.

    I can’t put it in academic phrases but a good college like Vanderbilt is a place where the introverted personality will bloom and get super focused, super actualized and super fulfilled, and where some time alone is sanctioned and blessed and viewed as productive and necessary–solo time that was viewed with ambivalence by some adults when the same student was younger…is sanctioned in college as “good work.”. It is a place where extroverts and introverts will both thrive and grow and be understood well by faculty. Lunch time might still be too noisy and chaotic for some, dorm life can be “overload” for some students more than others, but the classroom at a great college is a safe harbor where either personality orientation is engaged and understood by a faculty that truly can differentiate and appreciate differences in orientation and interpersonal boundaries and style.
    “Introversion: The Often Forgotten Factor Impacting the Gifted”

  • Michael Gluckstern

    August 31st, 2009

    Finding a college that fits the personalisty of the student is the key and there are many school characteristics to consider before choosing the college that is right for them (no matter how much of an introvert or extrovert they are). In the end, it’s about where the student feels at home, feels like this is where I belong, which is why campus visits play such an important role in the final decision of where they choose to go to college.

  • anon in dallas

    October 16th, 2009

    much of what you said makes sense to me and, in my opinion, is not only an interesting point of discussion but a very necessary one. the college application process is a huge part of a person’s life in these times and yet, there seems to be very little talk of how stressful a process this can truly be for some students.

    my father lied to people we knew and said that i had been accepted to this school or that when i had not even applied. my parents never asked me about college, never mentioned the SAT, never really helped me to decide if i was able to attend college. financially, i would need help. emotionally, i wasn’t sure i could handle it. i couldn’t handle the stress.

    these are the kinds of taboo topics i wish were discussed with high school students. i wish the stress was talked about openly and often.

    being paralyzed in fear and having no one with which to discuss these things, i never applied to a college. instead i went to a community college.

    ever since i’ve been told that my dreams of becoming a doctor were never to come true.

    “no one wants a community college student.”

    the discussion is important. understanding why we feel the way we do and knowing that we aren’t alone is important. colleges reaching out to the introverts is important.

    yes, in the end we all will have to get it together, step up, and apply ourselves. in the end we will all have to seek out the right school for our personalities. but in the beginning, i think it’s okay to say, “This is scary.”