Senior Thesis


The Cognitive Heuristics involved in College Choice and their later Affect on Adaptation

Heather Martin


E-Mail Heather Martin
Saint Anselm 
College Website


     This study aims to explore how effective cognitive heuristics are in providing for good college adjustment.  The specific heuristics tested were the availability heuristic and the representative heuristic.  The availability heuristic allows one to use information most readily available to make a knowledgeable judgment.  The representative heuristic claims that a student is likely to compare themselves to current students like themselves in order to predict their success and happiness at the college.  Forty-two Saint Anselm College freshmen filled out a heuristic questionnaire and the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire (SACQ).  Correlations were specifically found between use of the representative heuristic and the attachment and academic subscales of the SACQ.  When the results from each gender were correlated separately, women were found to have four more correlations.  These correlations were between both the availability and representative heuristic and the social adjustment and attachment subscales of the SACQ.  The results of this study showed average heuristic use and fewer correlations than expected, raising questions about changing trends in what information students use in their final college choice today.

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     Many cognitive psychologists see adolescence as a time when cognitive abilities are remarkably refined (Galotti & Kozberg, 1996).  Adolescents gain the ability to think about thinking, distinguish between the possible and impossible, think scientifically, and to foresee consequences.  But probably one of the most important cognitive developments is the ability to think beyond the here and now and plan for the future.  The adolescent or maturing adult becomes better capable of making important decisions, such as the selection of a college. 
     Studies have found that many who are college bound do not even think of the decision to go to college as a conscious one but rather as an assumed one (Coelho, Hamburg, Murphey, Pearlin, Rosenberg, Silber, 1961).  The only time when this assumption is shaken is when the students social group questions it.  Most of those who go to college come from high schools where the majority of students chose to go to college. Adolescents often describe senior year as a time when college is continually discussed.  In fact, students learn alot about colleges from other students.  They also gather information about colleges from college fairs, college visits, teachers, and guidance counselors (Coelho, Hamburg, Murphey, Pearlin, Rosenberg, Silber, 1961).
     Hogarth (1980) suggests that people are able to process a limited amount of information (Smith, 1994).  There is an overwhelming amount of information involved in the college choice, so people have trouble in processing at many times.  This can happen if they attempt massive research instead of attending to information in a selective fashion.  People end up discounting some information because they quite simply cannot attend to all of it.  People are only capable of processing and retrieving a certain amount of information.  It is at this point that cognitive heuristics come into play.  Cognitive heuristics allow one to take an intense amount of complex information and make it manageable.  The availability heuristic allows one to use information most readily available to make a knowledgeable judgment.  The representative heuristic claims that a student is likely to compare themselves to current students like themselves in order to predict their success and happiness at the college. 
     A college studentís adaptation to college can be very difficult.  The educational demands of college are usually much more demanding than the demands of high school.  Students must learn how to rise to the occasion, or possibly learn how to adjust their study habits.  It has been found that students who enter college with confidence in their ability to succeed academically do better than those that are less confident (Chemers, Hu, Garcia, 2001).  Research has suggested that social adjustment can be just as important as academic adjustment (Gerdes & Mallinckrodt, 1994).  It is very important that one adjust to their new social surroundings on a few different levels.  First they must be able to integrate into the social life of college.  They then must be able to form a social network, and then they must manage this new social freedom.  When a student is not able to properly adjust on all these levels homesickness and/or loneliness often result.  The social networking in freshmen year allows for role models and socialization and encourages the development a new college student identity (Hays & Oxley, 1986). 
     Adaptation to college can be a difficult adjustment for many students.  If a student makes a well informed and good college choice based on their own interests and fit to a college the adjustment can be easier.  The role of heuristics is yet another way to explain the reasoning behind a college choice.  It is important to understand these heuristics and acknowledge that they come into play, because they are an important part in shaping ones college choice.  This study aims to explore how effective cognitive heuristics are in providing for good college adjustment.  In other words, how do cognitive heuristics impact how a student fits into their college environment freshman year?  Are the availability and representative heuristics a good judgment for good adaptation to college?  When one uses these heuristics they base their decision upon college reputations and their own sense of whether they would fit into the colleges environment.  So this study hypothesizes that when these heuristics or availability and representation are used properly, they aid a student in a good adaptation to college because they help a student to pick a college that has the environment in which they will be able to best adapt to academically, socially, and personally. 

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     The participants in this study were college freshmen at a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire.  These students signed up to participate in this study as a requirement for their General Psychology course.  The participants were male and female between the ages of 18 and 20.  There were 37 females and 5 males, totaling 42 participants. 

      The participants were each given two questionnaires.  The first questionnaire was the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire (SACQ).  The SACQ is a standardized test with 67 items that are answered on a 9-point scale varying from applies very closely to me to doesnít apply to me at all.  Scores are found for academic adjustment, social adjustment, personal/emotional adjustment, attachment, and finally the full-scale score.  The academic adjustment scale measures how the student is coping with their various new educational demands.  The social adjustment scales measures how well the student is dealing with the interpersonal-societal demands in their new environment.  The personal-emotional scale measures the psychological distress of the student in dealing with their adaptation to college.  Finally, the attachment scale measures a studentís commitment and connection to their college.  All these subscales provide for a broad range of adaptation measurement.  (Baker & Siryk, 1999) 
      The other questionnaire was designed to measure the usage of heuristics in comparison to factual information.  The questionnaire was made based on a previous questionnaire developed by Smith in 1994.  This questionnaire is divided into two parts.  Part one asks students to rate how similar they felt certain factors were for their peers in the decision process last year.  The second section asked students to read six different stories and rate how closely they were to their own experiences.  Section two had two stories for each the availability heuristic, representative heuristic, and factual usage, totaling six stories.  Both section one and two had an equal amount of factors that would predict use of either the availability heuristic, the representative heuristic use, or pure fact usage. 

     Participants all met in a classroom environment and were given specific directions by a proctor.  They were first asked to first fill out a standard informed consent form of the Saint Anselm College Psychology department.  Students were then asked to complete the Student Adjustment to College Questionnaire (SACQ).  Students were asked to hand in their questionnaire once they completed it and then they were instructed to pick up the second questionnaire, the heuristic questionnaire.  Once the participants completed this questionnaire they were given a debriefing statement and were free to leave.  This experiment utilizes a correlation design.  The correlation is being tested between the cognitive heuristics and adaptation to college.  These two variables will both have quantitative variables that can be compared.  The significance of the correlation will depend upon whether or not there is a linear relationship between the two variables.  The Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient will be used to measure the correlation. 

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     Two significant correlations were found using a Pearson-Product Moment Correlation.  The representative heuristic in the factual condition was positively correlated with the SACQ subscale of attachment (r =.362, p<.05).  This means that the more the representative heuristic was used in the college decision process, the better the students attachment was to their college.  The representative heuristic was also found to have a negative correlation to the SACQ subscale of academic adaptation in the factual condition of the heuristic questionnaire (r =.327, p<.05).  Students who used the representative heuristic had a lower score on their academic adjustment to college. 
     In order to examine gender specific patterns, the same Pearson product-moment correlations were computed for males and females separately.  There were no significant correlations for the males.  There were four correlations for females in the fact condition of the heuristic questionnaire.  The use of the availability heuristic was positively correlated with both social adjustment (r =.334, p<.05) and attachment (r =.401, p<.05) on the SACQ.  This shows that the more often female students used the availability heuristic when making their final college decision, the better their social adjustment and attachment to college proved to be.  The use of the representative heuristic was also positively correlated with both social adjustment (r =.413, p<.05) and attachment (r =.430, p<.01) on the SACQ.  Female students who used the representative heuristic had a better social adjustment and attachment to college.  In the overall mean scores, there was also a positive correlation between the representative heuristic and social adjustment (r =.418, p<.05).  Females had higher adjustment scores to college when they used the representative heuristic in making their final college choice. 
     Using a repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) showed no significance was found that favored either heuristic (representative or availability) or factual usage (see Table 1).

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     The results of the study showed two significant correlations for all participants.  The first was a positive correlation between the representative heuristic under that fact condition and the attachment measure on the SACQ.  This correlation is suggesting that the more a student uses the representative heuristic, the more likely they are to be satisfied with their own college choice and college in general.  Students who are able to find a good fit by using the representative heuristic already feel some sort of connection to the prospective college.  When students attend the college they have an idea of what to expect and according to this study, feel more comfortable with Saint Anselm College and their connection to it. 
     The second correlation was a negative correlation between the representative heuristic in the factual condition and the academic adjustment score on the SACQ. This correlation can suggest two things.  First, it is possible that students who focus too much predicting their own fit to college may lose sight of the importance of academics.  Another possible explanation could be influenced by the fact that low scores on the academic adjustment subscale are often associated with things like; low grade point average, a provisional acceptance to college, feelings of lack of control over the outcomes of ones academic efforts, unstable and age-inappropriate goals, and less realistic self appraisal (Baker & Siryk, 1999).    This correlation shows that while heuristics can help to organize information, one must not exclude important information like academics, when making a final decision.  The representative heuristic therefore does have the potential to lead to less favorable outcomes if used exclusively.
     Taking all the correlations into account, the representative heuristic had a greater impact upon adaptation than did the availability heuristic.  This fact suggests that when a student uses sources like a current student to predict their own success it impacts their adaptation.  All correlations with the exception of one were positive.  The negative correlation was related to academics, while the other positive correlations were related to attachment and social adjustment.  The representative heuristic therefore is beneficial when applied well to social factors as well as factors that will help to predict ones overall relation to their college. 
     Further research on this same topic would want to better define heuristics and fine a more accurate way to measure them in comparison to other important factors in the college decision process.  Further research may also want to explore more than one college population, especially a variety to ensure a consensus on heuristic use from a greater population. 
This study has shown that the use of heuristics can be beneficial to any overwhelmed adolescent making a final college decision when used properly.  Students should never neglect to take important pieces of information into account when making their final decision, especially academics.  By using heuristics, specifically the representative heuristic, one can predict not only their success but also their happiness at a college, in other words a good college adjustment.  The availability heuristic was not found to be as influential on ones adaptation, however.  Availability heuristic was shown to be beneficial for females, but under the same conditions as the representative heuristic was found to be effective.  Heuristics once again prove to be common and effective in the final decision process.  When the heuristics are used well, meaning they take a broad range of facts into account, they are beneficial to ones adaptation to college. 

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Baker, Robert W., Siryk, Bohdan.  (1999).  SACQ: Student Adaptation to College Q
      Questionnaire Manual.  Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.

Chemers, Martin M., Hu, Li-tze, & Garcia, Ben F. (2001).  Academic self-efficacy and 
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Coelho, George V., Hamburg, David A., Murphey, Elizabeth B., Pearlin, Leonard I., 
      Rosenberg, Morris, & Silber, Earle.  (1961).  Competant Adolescents Coping with
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Galotti, Kathleen M., & Kozberg, Steven F.  (1996).  Adolescentsí Experience of a 
      Life-framing Decision.  Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 25 (1), 3-17.

Gerdes, Hilary & Mallinckrodt, Brent. (1994).  Emotional, social, and academic 
     Adjustment of college students: A longitudinal study of retention.  Journal
     Of Counseling and Development, 72, 281-288.

Hays, Robert B., & Oxley, Diana.  (1986).  Social network development and functioning
      During a life transition.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(2) 305-

Smith, Kerry.  (1994).  Cognitive Heuristics in Studentsí College Decisions. 
      Applications of Heuristics and Biases to Social Issues, 287-301.

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