Pack your EQ in your Back to School Bag

And you thought a high IQ was the ticket to university success.

Think again. You’d better add a high EQ, or Emotional Intelligence Quotient, to your post-secondary back-to-school list of goals.

A high IQ, high marks in high school, fantastic Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, a wealthy family, and excellent referrals are not enough to predict a successful university career, says Dr. James Parker, Canadian Research Chair in Emotion and Health and Associate Professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

His research showed that academic success (achieved by staying in post secondary school) was strongly associated with emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to tap into, label and express feelings appropriately, respond empathically to others, and use information about one’s own feelings and the feelings of others to make decisions.

His research shows that students returning to their 2nd year of university were significantly more emotionally intelligent than students who withdrew from university or abandoned their studies altogether. The returning students had mastered intrapersonal skills – meaning they knew themselves and they had good interpersonal skills – they could relate well with others, they were able to adjust emotions and behaviours to changing situations and they were good stress managers, with an ability to resist or control impulses.

In a recent interview, Parker added that “IQ scores and high school grades are relatively weak in predicting success at university.” In fact, having strong emotional intelligence is a better predictor of who will return to 2nd year and who won’t.

Parker says excellent high school students may flounder at university and ultimately quit because they lack important emotional and social abilities that are necessary to success.

Many of these students are surprised by their failure, especially those who did well in high school. “University is a whole new experience. It’s like everybody starts over again,” he said. “Those who were really good in high school find themselves in a totally different environment. Having had a 95% grade point average in high school may not get them very far.”

It’s common for students to encounter huge transitions and emotional stresses when starting university, including being away from home for the first time and being responsible for their own time and scheduling. There is no one to tell you to get up, do your homework or take attendance. Other realities of post-secondary life, such as falling in love and being of legal drinking age make university a lot more than lectures and exams.

“I hear stories in the summer like – ‘I dropped out of school because I couldn’t cope with the fact that my boyfriend dumped me for a roommate and I couldn’t stand seeing the two of them in the cafeteria, so I just left and worked for a year’,” explained Parker.

Students get derailed by these changes, experience a drop in marks and by mid-term they can find their dreams of success at university unreachable.

“What we call maturity is actually the ability to learn some adult restraint and self control or self regulation. Many high school students continue to be regulated by their families but then parents magically relax (the rules) when students start university,” said Parker.

Another common way for students to become unraveled in university is socially.

Students must develop the ability to enter a room of strangers and be able to make small talk, knowing that everyone in the place is a stranger to one another, says Parker.

“We find really spectacularly good students…who bomb out even though they have the intellectual ability because they feel alienated…because they don’t know how to have social relationships.”

Being flexible in problem solving is important when encountering new environments. Parker says this is common for first year students. If they don’t cope well with this initial uncertainty they are at risk for not staying in school.

Students who understand and can manage their feelings, are empathic and flexible in how they deal with set backs and those who are able to delay gratification (e.g. resist heading out for a beer when there is studying to be done) are more likely to stay in university and complete their degree.

Parents and educators can help prepare kids for success at university by letting them set some of their own goals and make some mistakes early on,” says Parker. “Kids need the experience of staying up too late and having trouble making it into school the next day (so) they’ll learn for the next time.”

He advises families to discuss responsible alcohol use and encourage kids early on to talk about how they feel, how to be a good friend and how to solve problems with peers. Parents of 1st year students can help by discussing some of the common challenges faced by students in 1st year so that students understand that bumpy transitions are normal.

New students should be aware that seeking university programs such as mentoring clubs, social associations, time management courses and counselling centers can help if they feel overwhelmed.

Parker says that parents do their children a disservice by focusing soley on their intellectual development at the expense of their emotional development.

Train them early, he says – as early as elementary school – to boost their emotional intelligence and their chances of overall academic success.

In our practice, we have noticed that working on increasing emotional intelligence is key to success at both school and work. Many university graduates entering the workforce for the first time, face the same kinds of transitions as they did when they began university (e.g., getting to know new people and grappling with new expectations). Having EI skills enables the successful navigation of important life changes.

It is possible to increase emotional intelligence and learn how to be more empathic, more sociable, flexible and aware of one’s emotions. Being emotionally intelligent ensures that all the hard work spent on essays and exams will count towards a degree four years down the road and ultimately an enjoyable and successful career.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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