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The Importance of Character in Admissions Decisions


I clicked on the slide that listed the “Top Ten Factors” that are most important to colleges in making admission decisions, according to the National Association of College Admission Counselors’ annual survey of public and private colleges and universities. I had made this presentation numerous times before during my 2011 book tour, in many community venues, and I had become accustomed to the questions parents typically ask. I described each factor in order: (1) Grades in college prep courses, (2) strength of curriculum, (3) admission test scores, (4) grades in all courses, (5) essays, (6) “demonstrated interest”, (7) teacher recommendations, (8) counselor recommendations, (9) class rank, and (10) extracurricular activities.

I answered what experience had told me were the most common questions. “Grades are first on the list, and extracurricular activities are last,” I explained.  “After all, college is an academic institution, and so the priorities are pretty clear.” Two hands shot up in the library meeting room. A mother asked, “What about leadership?” Then a father joined in: “What about character?”

I didn’t make up these stats, I thought.  NACAC is the national governing body for college counselors, and this is their authoritative word on what is going on inside the college admissions office. And don’t the findings make intuitive sense, that academic performance would be the essential ingredient in a successful college application? So why is my audience giving me such a hard time?

Nevertheless, their questions prompted serious reflection. Surely college admissions decisions cannot be made on an entirely values-neutral basis, nor would we want them to be. These parents sincerely wanted to know how the personal qualities of a young person can shine through on a college application.

My response to these insightful inquiries was offered extemporaneously by showing how each of the ten factors can reveal the personal strengths of the applicant. With more time to reflect, here is a more thorough response:

Certainly, academic performance demonstrates personal strengths. Beyond pure talent, academic achievement is a result of goal orientation, focus, perseverance, maturity, ability to manage time, and the discipline to postpone gratification. I have worked with ESL immigrants who have graduated from high school with impressive grades and test scores in verbal subjects; clearly, their accomplishments are evidence of not only intelligence, but also determination and old-fashioned hard work.

Essays are a perfect venue for demonstrating such personal strengths as leadership and character. I tell my clients, “Tonality is the most important thing in your essay.” The “entertainment value” of the topic or story is far less critical than the message: what does the essay say about you? If a performing artist writes about the experience of being center stage, and sounds like a self-absorbed diva, that essay is not serving her well. One of the best college essays I have ever read was written by a budding creative writer and photographer, about her after school job as a grocery store cashier. This student saw each customer as a person with a story. The essay demonstrated her keen insights into human beings, her imagination, and her empathy for others.

Teacher and counselor recommendations are significant venues for providing evidence of an applicant’s leadership capabilities and character strengths. When my 85-year-old father-in-law sat in on one of my presentations, he observed that character recommendations played a far more pivotal role in his day. I am sure he is right. In a less heavily populated educational landscape, recommendations by adults who knew the applicant well would naturally carry more weight.

Today, it is not always possible for a guidance counselor to know your teen well (particularly in a large regional public high school); it is possible, however, for a teacher to be a strong advocate, if your student makes an aggressive effort to build personal credibility and rapport. And when it comes to character, it seems better to have another testify to ones character, rather than one asserting one’s own character strengths.

In the extracurricular activities category, leadership can be demonstrated through election or appointment to leadership positions, such as team captain, class president, newspaper editor, band section leader, club founder or president, and so on. Commitment can be shown through “deep” involvement (years, hours). Admissions officers know how to read the Common Application activity section and surmise whether  the student is a leader, committed member, or a casual dilettante.

Interviews did not make the top ten factors, because interviews are not a mandatory part of the admissions decision process in most colleges and universities today. In public institutions, the ratio of admissions staff people to applicants requires a significantly more quantitative approach to admissions decisions in general. Even in private colleges and universities, interviews tend to be conducted by alums, and are considered as optional opportunities for applicants to learn more about the school in a non-evaluative setting. Only the most elite institutions require evaluative interviews.

That said, I recommend that applicants do interviews if possible. Even f they are officially non-evaluative, a strong candidate with a great personal story can shine in an interview. The power of personal connection must never be underestimated. So to parents out there everywhere, I say, “Yes, character is important in admissions decisions.” But character qualities are the subtle ingredients in these factors that influence admissions decisions. Admissions officers can read between the lines on an application, surmising the character that has translated into accomplishment, as well as the personal qualities more directly expressed in essays, recommendations and interviews. Not to worry. It’s still about character.