How Much Does ‘Character’ Count in College Admissions?

Demonstrating good character gives students an edge in the college admissions game, especially at highly selective schools, but it remains unclear just how significant that edge might be.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • Colleges are increasingly considering "character" attributes in their admissions decisions.
  • Definitions of character vary, and experts concede it's a difficult concept to measure.
  • Giving character more weight in admissions decisions can help level the playing field for disadvantaged applicants.
  • Changes with the Common App promise to accelerate the "character movement" in college admissions.

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, "The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching."

Imagine the pressure to demonstrate good character when everyone is watching. That's increasingly the situation for millions of high school students wending their way through the college admissions process under the gaze of parents, siblings, peers, teachers, guidance counselors, the occasional independent consultant and — of course — admissions offices.

Character — however defined, measured, and weighted — counts in college admissions. And showing strong character can result in an advantage over the competition, especially at highly selective institutions.

The Growing Character 'Movement' in Holistic College Admissions

The concept of "character" in college admissions is nothing new. Colonial colleges sought students who exhibited good values, and the curriculum aimed to strengthen the character of young men.

Over time, cultural biases have become embedded in evaluations of character. Early colleges preferred students from "good families." A century ago, Harvard emphasized character in its admissions formula to limit the burgeoning number of Jewish students on its campus. Even now, the Harvard admissions case pending before the Supreme Court involves alleged discrimination against Asian students partly on the basis of "personal qualities."

Yet the contemporary character movement in college admissions doesn't involve such pernicious motives. In fact, it seeks to bolster diversity and expand access for those whose personal narratives tell a powerful story beyond what grades and test scores can convey.

Due to the pandemic and other forces, nearly 80% of colleges have abandoned the SAT and ACT — some temporarily, some permanently. Because of this, emphasis on character as part of a holistic student assessment has only grown.

"Almost every institution is looking more carefully at character," Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, said in a 2019 survey report.

An organization called the Character Collaborative was founded to promote the character movement. Executive Director David Holmes helped form the group in 2016, and it's since expanded to include 75 colleges, secondary schools, and educational associations.

The collaborative encourages admissions offices to "recognize and assess character in admission and signal its importance."

Holmes told BestColleges the Character Collaborative draws from University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth's research on grit and her Character Lab. The collaborative also considers data gleaned from surveys and interviews with dozens of admissions professionals nationwide.

"There's a growing body of research that shows beyond any doubt that over the long run, aspects of character are stronger predictors of success in college, in work, and in life than the typical measures we've used, such as standardized test scores," Holmes said.

One 2019 survey conducted in concert with the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reported that 70% of colleges said positive character attributes were of "considerable" or "moderate" importance in admissions.

The survey revealed that private colleges rated character traits more highly than public institutions did, demonstrating that selective institutions were more likely than less-selective colleges to rate character attributes as "considerably important."

The NACAC survey noted that selective colleges "have many applicants with similarly high grades and test scores, and therefore tend to consider a broader range of factors, including positive character traits." This may tip the balance during admissions.

"Your grades and scores get you into the good pile," admissions consultant Hafeez Lakhani said in the NACAC survey report. "But it's your character that helps you stand out."

The Character Collaborative also partners with the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose research includes character assessment in college admissions. One of this project's initiatives, called Turning the Tide, has engaged more than 200 admissions leaders in a collective effort to elevate character evaluation in the application process.

Trisha Ross Anderson, college admissions program director at Making Caring Common, told BestColleges parents and counselors often expressed concern that students prioritized grades and test scores over community service and other forms of "caring" behavior, because "that's what colleges want."

"Admissions officers told us that's not their intent," Anderson said. "They said, 'We care about who kids are as whole people. We care about their character. We don't just care about achievements.'"

One Turning the Tide report, released in March 2019, encourages parents to exhibit the ethical behavior they expect from their children.

"But many parents," the report states, "including those who genuinely want their child's school to promote ethical character, neither model ethical character nor support schools in promoting it in the college admissions process."

Coincidentally, this Turning the Tide report was issued just as the varsity blues scandal broke. This scandal exposed in detail the extent to which some parents are willing to suspend ethics when playing the selective admissions game.

How Is Character Defined and Measured?

A Making Caring Common report concluded that colleges "often measure what's easily measurable but not what's meaningful." But how, exactly, might one go about evaluating something as seemingly subjective as character? Even Harvard admitted in Making Caring Common's report that "non-cognitive/character skills are notoriously difficult to measure."

The first step is defining what "character" means. Participants in the Character Collaborative/NACAC survey identified attributes such as resilience, service, curiosity, perseverance, respect, kindness, and integrity.

Making Caring Common researchers offer terms such as compassion, gratitude, grit, growth mindset, perspective-taking, purpose, and self-control.

Making Caring Common also distinguishes between ethical character (which entails empathy and compassion) and performance character (involving grit, resilience, and diligence). The former describes "being a good person," while the latter pertains to achievement.

A Making Caring Common document shares examples of how colleges define character. Swarthmore College mentions "generosity toward others." Bennington University lists "aesthetic sensibility." MIT values a "collaborative and cooperative spirit."

It's easier, though, to consider character in terms of actions, not concepts. One example is the teen caregiver who tends to siblings or grandparents after school instead of participating in a resume-building service activity. Such responsibilities are rarely fully communicated through college applications, resulting in an incomplete profile of a student brimming with compassion and perseverance.

Once defined, colleges must measure and consider character in some meaningful way. Harvard researchers offer a guide to college admissions professionals seeking useful ways to evaluate character and give it proper weight in their decision-making. These researchers suggest focusing on qualities that speak to the college's mission, developing rubrics, and training admissions officers to recognize markers of character.

To help admissions offices negotiate this terrain, Harvard provides a set of character assessment tools. A similar resource is the Character Skills Snapshot referenced by Holmes. Admissions offices at private schools often use this resource.

"It's obviously not as neatly packaged as a standardized test score," Holmes said, "but most thoughtful people would agree that it's possible to make judgments about something as 'soft' as character in a responsible, consistent, and transparent way."

And just how much do colleges weigh character in their decisions? This varies among institutions, but some think character is not weighted enough on average.

"Many college admissions offices do not weight ethical character nearly as much as they weight athletic excellence, high standardized test scores, or donor and legacy status," Turning the Tide notes in a report. "That sends a very troubling message to young people."

A New Tool for Leveling the Admissions Playing Field

Although students, parents, and counselors want character considered as part of a holistic admissions application, Anderson said, they also seek greater transparency.

"They want to know, 'What does that mean? What does it look like? And how will this be evaluated?'" Anderson told BestColleges.

To those unfamiliar with college admissions — particularly at highly selective colleges — the process can appear a mysterious black box at best, and at worst, it's a system that perpetuates inequality, rewarding the wealthy for being wealthy.

"As long as kids are getting rejected from institutions," Holmes said, "there's going to be cynicism about the process."

Even letters of recommendation face scrutiny. These letters are a viable way for counselors to learn a student's story, adding those character details that may help sway an admissions committee. Still, some critics claim recommendation letters often sustain inequities.

For example, low-income students at urban schools with overworked teachers and counselors often receive vague letters. Those at well-resourced schools are more likely to receive one-on-one attention or even use outside experts to craft recommendations.

"To judge that weak letter against the letter that has been shaped by an educational consultant," Holmes said, "is just patently unfair."

To level the playing field, Making Caring Common staff are working with the Common App to redesign aspects of that application tool through an initiative called Revolutionizing the App. Potential changes include new short essay questions and revising recommendation forms to better reflect character and broaden access.

"It's their attempt to really think about what a new application focused on equity would look like," Anderson said.

The new tool would offer yet another way for students with desirable character traits to present a full picture of who they are as people, not just as applicants.

"You think about a kid who maybe doesn't have the required test scores or grades but has shown remarkable grit or resilience or compassion," Anderson said. "There's something else about that kid and their life that would make an admissions officer say, 'This kid could be successful here.' That's really the power of all of this. It's less about keeping people out and much more about giving colleges a reason to open their doors and take a chance on students."