The ability to understand oneself and others and get along with people is vital for success in school, work, and life. Another element of success is the ability to manage time well and get things done. Also, it’s important to anticipate potential problems before they occur. Why do some individuals struggle to handle stressful situations while others seem to handle them with ease? Although we tend to think of these abilities as inborn personality traits that can’t be changed, social skills and stress-management skills really can be learned and improved.

Particularly in the first year of college, many students who are intellectually capable of succeeding have difficulty establishing positive relationships with others, dealing with pressure, or making wise decisions. Other students exude optimism and happiness and seem to adapt to their new environment without any trouble. Being optimistic doesn’t mean that you ignore your problems or pretend they will go away, but optimistic people believe in their own abilities to address problems successfully as they arise. The difference in the way students deal with life’s challenges lies not in academic talent but in emotional intelligence (EI), or the ability to recognize and manage moods, feelings, and attitudes. A growing body of evidence shows a clear connection between students’ EI and whether or not they stay in college.

As you read, you will develop an understanding of EI, and you will learn how to use it to become a more successful student and person. You will begin to look at yourself and others through an EI lens, observe the behaviors that help people do well, get to know yourself better, and take the time to examine why you are feeling the way you do before you act. As you read, try to apply what you have learned about EI and think about how it might relate to the behaviors of successful college students. You can’t always control the challenges and frustrations of life, but with practice you can control how you respond to them.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence, or EI, is the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions. Emotions are a big part of who you are; you should not ignore them. The better the emotional read you have on a situation, the more appropriately you can respond to it. Being aware of your own and others’ feelings helps you to gather accurate information about the world around you and allows you to respond in appropriate ways.

There are many competing theories about EI, some of them very complex. Although experts vary in their definitions and models, all agree that emotions are real, can be changed for the better, and have a profound effect on whether a person is successful.

In the simplest terms, EI is “a person’s innate ability to perceive and manage his/her own emotions in a manner that results in successful interactions with the environment and, if others are present, to also perceive and manage their emotions in a manner that results in successful interpersonal interactions. In other words, Emotional Intelligence is about recognizing and managing one’s own emotions and the emotions of others.”1

Perceiving and Managing Emotions

Learning how to put yourself in the “right” mood to handle different situations is part of developing your emotional intelligence. Handling emotions involves both perceiving them and managing them.

Perceiving emotions involves the capacity to monitor and label feelings accurately (nervous, happy, angry, relieved, etc.) and to determine why you feel the way you do. It also involves predicting how others might feel in a given situation. Emotions contain information, and the ability to understand and think about that information plays an important role in behavior.

Managing emotions builds on the belief that feelings can be modified and even improved. At times you need to stay open to your feelings, learn from them, and use them to take appropriate action. At other times it is better to disengage from an emotion and return to it later. Anger, for example, can blind you and lead you to act in negative or antisocial ways; used positively, however, the same emotion can help you overcome adversity, bias, and injustice.

Developing an awareness of emotions allows you to use your feelings to enhance your thinking. If you are feeling sad, for instance, you might view the world in a certain way, whereas if you feel happy, you are likely to interpret the same events differently. Once you start paying attention to emotions, you can learn not only how to cope with life’s pressures and demands, but also how to harness your knowledge of the way you feel for more effective problem solving, reasoning, decision making, and creative endeavors.

Assessing Your Emotional Intelligence

A number of sophisticated tools can be used to assess emotional intelligence. Some first-year seminars and many campus counseling centers offer the opportunity to complete a professionally administered questionnaire such as the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i), which provides a detailed assessment of your emotional skills and a graphic representation of where you stand in comparison with other students. Even without a formal test, however, you can take a number of steps to get in touch with your own EI. You’ll have to dig deep inside yourself and be willing to be honest about how you really think and how you really behave. This process can take time, and that’s fine. Think of your EI as a work in progress.

emotional intelligence (eI) The ability to recognize, understand, use, and manage moods, feelings, and attitudes.