Soft Skills Matter: In Business School and Beyond

Measuring soft skills in a standardized way provides business schools with vital information to drive success for businesses and future business leaders.
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IN A 2016 Wall Street Journal survey of executives, more than 90 percent said soft skills were as or more important than technical skills, yet nearly as many said they had a difficult time finding applicants with the right skills. Communication skills, interpersonal skills, initiative, problem-solving, work ethic, and leadership are among the most sought-after competencies. This finding is not limited to what employers tell interviewers they are looking for; the same conclusion can be drawn from analyses of skills sought in online job advertisements.

The author of “The Case for Soft Skills,” an article that appeared in BizEd magazine, highlights that business schools have responded to this demand with increased offerings of soft-skills coursework. But there is also growing interest in evaluating students’ soft skills as part of the business school admissions process, as seen with the Yale School of Management’s pilot of behavioral assessments. Over the years, business schools and other graduate and professional schools have used personal statements, letters of recommendations, essays, interviews, and other informal means to assess applicants’ soft skills. Other schools have conducted pilot studies to explore the effectiveness of supplementing standardized tests, such as the GMAT and the GRE tests, with self-ratings and situational judgment tests.

More recently there have been several developments that have led to a rise in the use of behavioral assessments, or what used to be called personality inventories. The first of these developments is the “Big 5” model from personality psychology, which has provided a common language for describing the most important attributes—the characteristic ways people differ from one another in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. These attributes are not permanently engrained in people, but are better thought of as habits—fairly stable, but changeable, particularly with interventions designed to change them. The term “Big 5” refers to the broad dimensions of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (“OCEAN”). More specific facets fit under these broad labels. For example, extraversion is a more abstract description of two lower-order facets—gregariousness and social dominance, which develop differently (gregariousness peaks in the teen years; social dominance grows through one’s working life). Conscientiousness can describe someone who is a determined striver or who keeps a clean desk. So, the Big 5 really represent only high-level descriptions—many of the important differentiators appear as facet dimensions, or more fine-grained distinctions beneath the Big 5. In any event, having a common standard—or, in this case, a common language for describing individual characteristics—is key, and important for progress. For example, numerous summaries of past research studies, or meta-analyses, have been made possible by the adoption of a common terminology—from these we now know what the most important factors are for success in school and in the workforce.

The second development is that we now have evidence that a particular method for getting information about someone’s standing on the Big 5 and related factors is superior to other methods. That is the forced-choice method, and particularly, the multidimensional forced-choice method. Unfortunately, most behavioral assessments use the common Likert scale, which asks participants how much they agree with statements such as “I am a hard worker”; on this scale, people most often can choose among options such as “strongly agree,” “agree,” “neither agree nor disagree,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree.” The problem with this method is that it is easy for a respondent to spot what the “correct” answer is when applying for a job, a scholarship, or admission to business school.

In contrast, the multidimensional forced-choice method pits two statements against each other, such as “I am a hard worker” versus “I work well with others,” and asks the respondent to choose between them. The two statements both reflect desirable qualities, and therefore there is no obvious correct answer. By selecting statement pairs judiciously, personality test designers eliminate respondents’ ability to game the system. “Does forcing reduce faking? A meta-analytic review of forced-choice personality measures in high-stakes situations,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, has shown that the multidimensional forced-choice method does indeed reduce faking and that it leads to better prediction of outcomes as well.

A question is how can soft-skills assessments be used in business schools? In our conversations with admissions staff and faculty members, we hear support for two distinct uses. One is in the admissions process itself, where a soft-skills assessment can be administered along with traditional standardized tests such as the GMAT and GRE, to provide additional information about students that can be considered in admissions decisions. Often, admissions staff are looking for information that will help improve the forecast for who will succeed in business school, both to reduce the number of students who score well and then underperform, and to identify students who “don’t test well” but would succeed had they been admitted. Behavioral assessments, or soft-skills assessments, are designed to capture those crucial attributes associated with academic success that otherwise might go unrecognized. In addition, business schools are often looking for qualities other than strictly academic ones—such as leadership, volunteerism, and social responsibility—that are typically not well predicted by standardized testing.

Another use for soft-skills assessments is to support personal development. A soft-skills assessment can provide a snapshot of where a student stands at the moment on various dimensions, such as leadership, collaboration, work ethic, and communication. This information can be useful in advising, or for self-reflection purposes in which the assessment provides students with feedback on strengths and challenges. Students can use this feedback to tailor activities that capitalize on their strengths and to support self-improvement in challenging areas. The norms provided by soft-skills assessments offer students an unbiased read on where they stand on various nonacademic attributes, in the same way that grades provide information on their achievement levels in different academic domains.

Developments in recent years have increased our understanding of the role and importance of soft skills in business school and in the workplace. We also now know better than before how best to assess soft skills in students and job applicants to get higher quality information, which we can use to help make better decisions, whether for admissions or student development. Measuring soft skills in a standardized way provides business schools with more evidence of the required critical skills of potential applicants. Schools can then use this vital information to drive success for businesses and future business leaders.

To learn more, attend ETS’s Research Session “Assessing Behavioral Strengths for Business Schools” on Monday, April 27, from 1:45–2:45 p.m. at AACSB’s International Conference and Annual Meeting (ICAM).

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