The CliftonStrengths assessment is designed to facilitate personal development and growth. At its core, the assessment is a tool for self-awareness and a call to action to apply strengths in every facet of life. Discovering one's CliftonStrengths is a critical springboard for valuable discussions with managers, friends, colleagues and advisers -- to learn and grow and become more aware of others' strengths, too.

Because people are unique. They're motivated by a variety of factors. Proof: As of November 2016, over 15 million people have taken the CliftonStrengths assessment. The chance of someone in that database having the same Signature Themes in the same order as someone else is one in 33.4 million.

Watch two graduates discuss what they learned from discovering their CliftonStrengths while in school.

To better understand this uniqueness as it relates to students, and to dig into the overall theme frequency among CliftonStrengths users in higher education -- most of whom are college students -- I recently talked with Jim Asplund, chief scientist, strengths-based development and performance impact consulting at Gallup.

First, About the Frequencies

There are 120 ways to arrange a set of five themes and 278,256 different combinations of the five CliftonStrengths themes. Some themes and combinations are more common than others, making it more likely to have the same top five. As themes become less frequent, having the same themes becomes rarer. But, on average, the chance of having the same Signature Themes is one in 278,256.

Some themes occur more commonly with each other. For instance, Learner and Input are common together, but Individualization and Consistency tend not to show up together because they describe different ways of looking at people.

The overall CliftonStrengths theme profile in higher education is highly correlated to the profile of the CliftonStrengths database, but there are a few interesting differences.

Achiever is the No. 1 theme in both databases. Within the higher education population, Restorative and Adaptability take the No. 2 and 3 spots, followed by Responsibility and Relator. In the general population, Responsibility, Learner, Relator and Strategic round out the top five. Restorative and Adaptability are still within the top 10 but are at Nos. 9 and 10.

"We're looking at differences in a snapshot in time," Asplund says.

What The Differences Mean

When people retake CliftonStrengths five or six years later, Asplund says, their top themes remain fairly stable. They might change a little bit, and some of the cause for that among the student population could be developmental. There are other reasons for the differences, too. Since the overall and higher education-specific CliftonStrengths databases are presumed to be representative of the general population, the differences between the databases may simply be due to the differences in composition between the samples.

"As researchers we tend to be attracted to the differences we observe," Asplund explains. But the important thing to remember is that these databases are composed of millions of unique individuals, and the intended focus of CliftonStrengths is the development of each and every one of those individuals."

Adaptability and Futuristic are other themes that rank higher in the higher education population. At this stage in their lives, many students are likely to be oriented toward the future and may have spent most of their youth adapting to environments directed by others.

"You do see that Futuristic is one of the themes that drops with age because, literally, there's less of a future," Asplund says wryly. "It can be less useful to postulate and plan for things when you're 40 years down the road -- you're not as likely to turn around and go back and change."

The developmental nature of understanding oneself means that people's answers can change as life changes, but "if you look at the overall thrust of people's profiles, they're pretty consistent."

What Educators Can Learn From Theme Frequencies in the Clifton Strengths Population in Higher Education

"You have hundreds of thousands of people with very different combinations than each other," Asplund says. "Educators might want to have a more individualized lens on their students."

The biggest lessons for educators:

  • There is a lot of diversity among students as a group.
  • Every student is an individual and might not have any of the predominant top themes.
  • Students are going to learn in different ways, at different times and different levels of effort.

One of the most important aspects of well-being for students is forming a personal connection with a professor who they feel cares about them as a person, an insight revealed by the Gallup-Purdue Index. Knowing a student's talents and strengths might help foster that connection.

Why Coaching Is Important

Using your talents well and turning them into strengths takes practice. Completing the CliftonStrengths assessment and learning about your strengths is valuable, but the real benefits happen when you learn to apply them.

Educators and advisers can help students better understand why they do what they do because people's talents and motivations are often unconscious, or innate, Asplund says. If a student doesn't have a lot of self-confidence but has a lot of ideas, coaching can help the student come to terms with something they don't believe about themselves.

"There are different ways to appeal to people who have different personalities and strengths," Asplund says. "For those who come to you with a different perspective -- those are some of the most interesting students you've got."

For example, people might assume that physics students have Analytical as a top theme. But if Analytical isn't at the top, how could someone be successful in physics?

"It's not that people can't do the math -- they might be driven by something else," Asplund explains. "There is no 'right' set of themes. That's what makes this interesting. There are so many different ways to live a life."

See the CliftonStrengths Signature Theme Frequency report for Higher Education users

This content first appeared in the Strengths Insights Newsletter -- subscribe today!