Character Counts: Why Personal Qualities are Gaining Importance in College Admissions

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Female high school student helping younger student with homework

While admittedly subjective, “character” counts in college admissions. With many colleges abandoning or making optional SAT and ACT test scores, assessing applicants holistically has become an even greater focus, and a student’s ability to demonstrate character has become just as important as demonstrating leadership, intellectual curiosity and achievement.

While character is an abstract concept, we find many students are intrigued to have a conversation with us about character as part of our college planning process. Even those with an initial reaction of “Oh, no…something more to add to my busy schedule” come to appreciate the fact that colleges want a complete view of who they are as a person beyond their grades and test scores. They welcome the opportunity to develop and show through their essays, activities list, supplements and letters of recommendation that they have qualities like grit, resilience and compassion. 

The highly-selective colleges, in particular, are turning away from an emphasis on personal success by seeking students who make meaningful, ethical contributions to the common good. Harvard has much to say about this topic, including: “How open are you to new ideas and people? What about your maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, warmth of personality, sense of humor, energy, concern for others, and grace under pressure?”

Duke’s website is crystal clear about what their Admissions Office is seeking in a candidate: “Duke offers a multitude of opportunities to its undergraduates. We’re looking for students ready to respond to those opportunities intelligently, creatively and enthusiastically. We like ambition and curiosity, talent and persistence, energy and humanity…We especially appreciate students who love thinking hard about things and who like to make a difference in the world.”

And then there’s Boston College: “We seek students who are bright, curious, passionate and engaged. As a Jesuit university, Boston College emphasizes liberal arts education, character development and the cultivation of leaders. Our mission is to graduate men and women who know how to think, make decisions, communicate and act with integrity.”      

How do we at College Expert encourage our students to think about character-building in high school? First, we inform our clients of the priority that colleges place on the concept. Then at every meeting we touch on character development as part of the college planning agenda.

Here are some ideas we share with our students:

  • Find a problem you see in your school, and try to fix it. One of our students noticed that the special needs kids washed the lunch tables every day. She found the practice to be unsettling and successfully approached the school administration to create change.
  • Start something new and leave a legacy. Another student started a Fishing Club at his high school, eventually expanding the club to include middle and elementary school students.
  • See a need? Think of it as an opportunity. With encouragement, our budding writers and artists have launched literary arts magazines and poetry slams at their schools.
  • Look for genuine ways to show gratitude and kindness. Make friends with the lunch ladies, custodians and bus drivers. Reach out to that kid who needs a friend.
  • Find a cause that you genuinely care about. It does not have to be an epic adventure but can be local and on a small scale. Just take initiative – colleges love to see students who make things happen.
  • Get to know your teachers. With their guidance, dive deeper into subjects that interest you. We remind our students that they will be asking some of the same teachers to write letters of recommendation. What better recommendation than from a teacher-mentor?

We view our roles as that of guides—helping students navigate through an enjoyable secondary school journey while evolving into the best possible applicants. Character-building is not just for college applications, but rather for the goal of becoming long-term contributors to society.

College Expert students, if you want to learn more about how to build character as well as demonstrate your character strengths to colleges in your application, contact your College Expert counselor.

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