Qualities such as perseverance and curiosity are stronger indicators of success in the NCEA than academic ability.
Competent Learners has tracked 400 20-year-olds since they were four years old.
The latest phase of the research includes NCEA results. The study found little difference between the academic ability of those who succeed and those who do not.
Radio New Zealand's education correspondent says the difference between the two groups lies in traits such as perseverance, curiosity, communication and social skills.
The research says the Government needs to give as much attention to such skills as it does to literacy and mathematics.