Character Matters in College Admissions

What do Cornell University, Trinity College, Bucknell and the University of Chicago have in common, aside from being highly selective colleges?  They all consider character and personality traits among the handful of Very Important factors they assess in their admission process. The concept of character is not new to college admissions. Yet within the last five years it has taken on a more prominent role in how institutions of higher education evaluate applicants. This focus on character grew out of an effort to elevate the non-quantitative factors that many educators believe are not just critical to their campus communities. They represent qualities that are fundamental to the development of human potential. While many colleges adopted test optional policies due to Covid-19, putting greater emphasis on other qualifications, the trend toward reducing the significance of standardized testing had already been gaining ground. Colleges see evidence that character is a far better predictor of success in college and beyond.

Unlike grades and test scores that are quantifiable, character isn’t easily measured. For starters, there is no single factor or definition that describes this somewhat nebulous trait. Words like grit and perseverance come to mind: the ability to persist and forego immediate gratification for a future objective. It’s about how we treat others, practice compassion when no one else is looking, and learn to think beyond ourselves. Character can also be found in the ways we demonstrate curiosity, engage in our communities and work collaboratively, or show resilience when confronted with setbacks and failures. In short, it’s a conglomeration of qualities that often fly under the radar because they are less about accomplishments and more about the way we conduct our lives.

Emphasizing the development of character seems to run counter to what we ask of our children during the college admission process, one that is so self-focused and fraught with anxiety about achievement and recognition. How do we balance these two? It starts by adjusting the message and asking ourselves: How do we encourage kindness, curiosity, resilience and selflessness? It’s about challenging our belief that academic accomplishments determine our children’s futures while recognizing that human qualities are equally important predictors of success in life.

Colleges across the country have already embraced the notion that character is one of the best predictors of human potential and future success. Many have altered their admission processes to emphasize factors that go beyond the numbers, which too often directly correlate with a student’s access to opportunities. Some have changed or added supplemental essay questions that delve deeper into personal values and community impact. The narratives of recommendations, activities and personal stories provide insight for how a student engages, shows empathy, takes initiative, and identifies and solves problems. Though character can’t be simply calculated, colleges and universities like Cornell, Trinity, Bucknell, the University of Chicago and others know it matters. It’s why they’ve elevated character and personality traits to the Very Important category in their college admission process.

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