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Why Personality Matters: Examining the Role of Character Traits in College Admissions

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Much has been made of the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision on Affirmative Action and how it might change college admissions. Many speak of the increasing importance of essays due to the number of colleges changing their essay prompts after the elimination of Affirmative Action . That said, with pressure on legacy admissions and the elimination of the practice at Wesleyan, Occidental and Minnesota Twin Cities , Lafayette College reducing the number of extracurricular slots on their application, Wake Forest creating a first generation EA pool and Virginia Tech eliminating ED many things are currently changing in the admissions process.

With a significant amount change taking place and uncertainty surrounding the future we thought it would made sense to mention a trend that is not changing and, if anything, is increasingly important in the admissions process.

In June of 2018 the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) released a fairly robust survey looking at the metrics that were important to colleges in their admissions process. Not surprisingly, grades and rigor were the most significant parts of their decision-making process, but ‘character’ finished 5th, above essays as well as counselor and teacher letters of recommendation as well as interviews. In brief, 25% of respondents claimed applicant character traits were of ‘considerable importance’ in their admissions decision process.

While things are changing post the Supreme Court’s decision on Affirmative Action, the reality is that due to technology and the growth of holistic admissions (which is aided by technology) things have been changing for some time.The ongoing changes in the importance of different admissions metrics was looked at again this year in a NACAC survey in which grades, rigor and character were the only metrics to increase in importance from the 2018 survey . In the NACAC’s most recent survey ‘character’ was the 4th most important admissions criteria with over 28% of respondents considering it to be of 'considerable importance'.

Simply put, at a time when the admissions yields of many colleges are pressured, finding students who are a good ‘fit’ and more likely to attend and stay at a school is of increasing importance to admissions offices. The conviction schools have in the importance of character and personality traits in admissions is enhanced not only by a significant body of research done by the Harvard School of Education, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and a number of other respected institutions but also by the research many universities have done themselves.

What constitutes positive character tends to vary by university but adaptability, overcoming adversity, leadership, empathy, self-control, grit, curiosity, and long-term planning all tend to be ‘winning’ characteristics. Examples of how different schools look for character would be the University of Denver using a rubric to assign a score related to evidence of resilience in a candidate and Rose-Hulman scoring applicants based on their initiative, resilience, responsibility, and passion for academics. Perhaps of greater interest is NACAC’s recent acquisition of the work done by the Character Collaborative, a group of forty colleges who have been focused on integrating character evaluation into their admissions process. Schools involved with the project include prestigious names like Bowdoin, Claremont McKenna, Cornell, Notre Dame ,Swarthmore and the University of Chicago to name a few.

While character has been a part of the admissions process for some time, It is clear to us that the number of schools that find character important is growing as is the importance of character in their process. Because of this, we believe it is critical that students understand the characteristics that are most important to the schools they are targeting and reflect those characteristics in outreach and interactions with their preferred schools as well as other parts of their applications. For those that need help doing this, we are available.


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