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How Colleges Identify Character in Admission Candidates

Measuring the Unmeasurable

It is easy to understand the allure of simplicity in college admission. Using strictly objective factors such as SAT or ACT scores and GPA (even though it could be argued that GPA is far from objective or standardized) a simple computer algorithm can easily select candidates to make the cut for the next incoming college class. Yet, it is widely believed that such objective factors only begin to tell the true story of a candidate, let alone their likelihood of beneficial campus integration and an all-around successful college experience.

So, colleges try to use creative methods to measure the unmeasurable. They seek candidates who demonstrate high degrees of “character.” And different colleges defined that word according to their own values and standards. However, within that term are embedded other terms such as compassion, determination, open mindedness, helpfulness, charity, community, and responsibility. They look to activities to find evidence of character. They scour recommendations from teachers and counselors in order to find hidden highlights of actions that speak much louder than the words that convey them. They look for recognition in the form of awards or honors from people or organizations in positions to recognize these qualities in individuals. They look for the reasons behind the choices that students make. They certainly hope to find reasons that are far deeper than a desire to pad a college activity list.

The failure of well-intentioned parents to recognize the importance of character or to misunderstand how character can be gleaned from the pages of a college application often leads to disappointing results. For example, fundraising (often supported by parental contributions) pales in comparison to community involvement. Joining a club can’t hold a candle to starting a business or starting a club that benefits an underserved community. Furthermore, a common application personal essay that details the deep disappointment felt by not qualifying for USAMO will be considered shallow when compared to an essay about something far more relevant to humanity, a community, or someone admired for their bravery.

Colleges care deeply about what you do with your spare time, because this is a measure of character as well. This is why I have recommended for 30 years that students not use entire summers to prepare for SAT or ACT tests. Preparing for a test is not a test of character. Rather, it is a shallow remnant of a bygone era when only test scores and GPA mattered in admissions. Elite colleges are much more likely to accept a student with a 1480 SAT score and a world-changing accomplishment than a student with a 1600 SAT score and a shallow, inconsistent, hodgepodge of an activity list.

Some suggestions for building up your character profile include pursuing activities that have particular significance to you, and doing so across multiple media. For example, if you are passionate about theater, then you can get involved in your school’s theater program, your community theater program and you can mentor young students who may otherwise never experience the joy that you feel. If you love poetry, you could visit the homeland of your favorite poet or poets to see if you can conjure the same spirit that inspired them to write the words that have inspired you. Then, you can write about the experience. If you love music, you can create an album. If you love science, you can do meaningful research and publish your research in a relevant trade journal. The key is that anything you do should have relevance to your life, to your passion, and to your pursuit of personal fulfillment.

Keep in mind the colleges won’t just take your word for it. They will rely heavily on recommendations coming from your school and others who know you through your activities. Therefore, you should be sure that your teachers and your counselor are aware of the things in your life that contribute to your personal character. They will scour your activities list, your awards, and your essays for evidence of character and consistency. They will expect that your interview, if offered, will support the other aspects of your application with respect to these intangible, immeasurable factors. It may be a hard job for colleges to see the person behind the numbers, but it may be even harder for you to fake it. Therefore, I advise that you choose a path not only that others will see as admirable but that will also provide you with a degree of personal fulfillment that goes far beyond the achievement of high GPA and test scores.