This is what you likely don’t know, but definitely should know, about elite college admission: CHARACTER MATTERS – A LOT! If admission into some of these elite colleges is your goal, then you have to pay as much attention to exhibiting the eight elements of character as you do to having impressive grades, test scores, and activities.
I shouldn’t be surprised. In a recent College Application 101 Workshop I held in Newton, Massachusetts, an engaged group of students sat through three hours of instruction about how to set up their Common Application and populate the recommender, activities, academic honors, and writing sections. Following this, I asked for questions related to the college application process and was surprised by the largely linear thinking that most students demonstrated. Then again, as I said earlier, I really shouldn’t be surprised. Ever since grade school, students have been indoctrinated in the belief that grades and test scores are all that matter. Somewhere along the way, they were introduced to the idea of becoming a well-rounded student by playing at least one musical instrument, participating in at least one sport, and having at least one example of community service. Further, they had learned either on the Internet or from their friends that the common app personal narrative was an opportunity to wax eloquent about their personal accomplishments, community service, or commitment to excellence of one type or another. All of these examples of mistaken thinking fall under the category of science. More precisely, they fall under the category of “College Admission as Science.” The only problem is that college admission is not science; it is an art form.
For most of the three hours, I revealed connections between all parts of the common application and the strictly nonlinear, highly nuanced, surreptitiously intertwined aspects of one of the most important, yet misunderstood, factors of admission: CHARACTER. Colleges try to identify character in every part of every student’s college application: the choices they make, the honors they earn, the recommendations they receive, and the essays they write. And it is these interlaced filaments of character traits that can either buoy or sink a student’s chance of attending a dream school, regardless of science, stats, or scores. How many rejections of students with perfect, or near perfect, GPAs and test scores will it take until there is a greater understanding that it is the “art of admission,” rather than the science, that catches the eyes of keenly observant admission personnel whose singular task is to scour the landscape for a single beautiful flower that rises up from the vast, barren desert of academic achievement.
This is what you likely don’t know, but definitely should know, about elite college admission: CHARACTER MATTERS – A LOT! If admission into some of these elite colleges is your goal, then you have to pay as much attention to exhibiting the eight elements of character as you do to having impressive grades, test scores, and activities. So, what are the eight elements of character? According to a recent publication emanating from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, they are compassion, curiosity, gratitude, grit, growth mindset, perspective-taking, purpose, and self-control. Without getting into too much detail here in this format, let me just say that colleges are looking for good people, and they’re also looking for ways to identify who those people are. There are many ways to demonstrate character. It is logical to believe that helping others is widely perceived as superior to helping oneself. It is logical to believe that understanding the perspective of others is superior to being closed-minded. It is logical to believe that being thankful is superior to being oblivious, that fighting for something you believe it is superior to quitting, and that having the strength to defer gratification is superior to being impulsive.
College admission is art, not science. It is closer in spirit to writing a novel or painting a portrait than proving a thesis. Done correctly, it is about weaving elements of character throughout all the sections of an application. It is about making choices based on what is good for yourself and for the world versus what will merely look impressive on a college application. As it is with some of the world’s great art and writing, it is as much about the process as it is about the product. With every student, there is a story waiting to be told, a masterpiece waiting to be painted, a poem ready to be recited. These are the things you may not have known, but now you do.