A New Push to Assess ‘Character’ in Admissions
You can’t measure heart, people often say. But some selective colleges have long wanted to know more about who applicants are, what they value, and how well they might fit in on their campus. A new push to assess students’ intangible qualities could change the conversation about what matters in admissions.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling on Thursday announced a new Character Focus Initiative to elevate the importance of non-academic factors and personal attributes in admissions. The association, known as NACAC, recently acquired the
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The National Association for College Admission Counseling on Thursday announced a new Character Focus Initiative to elevate the importance of nonacademic factors and personal attributes in admissions. The association, known as NACAC, recently acquired the Character Collaborative, a volunteer organization that promotes character in admissions. The new initiative will expand on that group’s advocacy and research — and perhaps broaden its impact.
“We’re only capturing what’s on the surface when it comes to students’ strengths and potential,” said David Hawkins, NACAC’s chief education and policy officer. “The question is: How do we capture these intangibles that fall outside the things we try to quantify on paper? We’re trying to get beyond the relatively shallow ways in which we’re looking at applicants.”
The grades students earn in high school and the courses they take carry the most weight in admissions evaluations — and that’s not about to change. But as any honest admissions officer will tell you, grade-point averages and standardized-test scores reveal relatively little about a student. That’s why many selective colleges use so-called holistic reviews, in which admissions officers also consider an array of other factors, relying on application essays, lists of extracurricular activities, and recommendation letters.
Interest in so-called noncognitive attributes or soft skills isn’t new in admissions circles. Some colleges have experimented with ways of measuring them for years. Back in 2016, dozens of colleges endorsed a plan to promote and reward “ethical engagement,” or displays of high character, in admissions. Around that time, some colleges expressed an interest in gauging applicants’ “grit,” or a student’s perseverance in pursuit of long-term goal — a concept that some researchers have since deemed misguided.
But Hawkins sees a new opportunity to refine the way colleges evaluate evidence of applicants’ personal qualities, such as curiosity and integrity. “The Character Collaborative has started a valuable conversation about measuring a wider range of students’ abilities, particularly among applicants who aren’t broadly represented in higher education,” he said. “And it just so happens that the Supreme Court’s decision makes this conversation even more important.”
Now that colleges can’t consider an applicant’s race per se, some experts predict that admissions officers will pay much closer attention to the adversity that students might have experienced. “Looking at persistence and overcoming obstacles will become more and more important,” said Robert J. Massa, who co-founded the Character Collaborative in 2016.
Massa, vice president emeritus for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College, recalls evaluating applicants early in his career who stood out even though they lacked top-notch academic credentials. “I remember thinking, in a number of cases, ‘This young woman or this young man will add something special to our campus — we’ve got to have this kid,’” he said. “It wasn’t until later on that I began to realize that this is something that should not be ad hoc. There should be some organization to it.”
Character is a loaded word. Or a squishy one, at least. Reasonable people might disagree on its meaning.
The Character Collaborative has defined it in four ways, Massa said: civic character, ethical character, persistence character, and intellectual character (students who express a respect for others’ views, say, or a willingness to engage in collegial debate). By “character” the group does not mean “personality.”
Tom Bear, vice president for enrollment management at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, in Indiana, and the most recent chair of the organization’s Board of Directors, believes that considering specific nonacademic factors helps his staff make better decisions.
At Rose-Hulman, two admissions officers read each application, rating students in terms of academic fit and community fit. They score applicants in four categories: initiative, responsibility, resilience, and passion for science, math, and engineering. “When we look for noncognitive character traits, we’re trying to find students that, first of all, fit within that community,” Bear said. “We’re looking at all those different aspects, along with the high-school curriculum, to triangulate and ask, ‘Is this a student who belongs at Rose Hulman?’ My No. 1 job is to bring kids into a community where they are going to be able to succeed.”
Considering attributes that correlate with student success at Rose-Hulman can be especially important when assessing applicants who have lacked many educational opportunities. “When I see a kid who really demonstrates a strong passion for STEM, it gives me more confidence,” Bear said. “Even though their academic preparation isn’t up to par with another applicant’s, I know how hard they’re going to pursue their goals, because they have the desire.”
“Colleges attempt to do this to a certain extent,” Kuncel said, “but very few of them do it well at all.”
Many selective colleges require applicants to submit one or more essays, which, in theory, give admissions officers a glimpse of who a student is. But even when students write their own essays, what do those samples really tell you? “All the research that I’ve seen on personal statements and essays suggests that they’re very poor predictors of student success,” Kuncel said. “I would certainly consider reducing the number of essays and making them more focused on the things that are most central to the culture of a school. To do that, schools will have to be clearer about what they’re all about, and, unfortunately, most colleges and universities say they want everything from everybody — all the good things — rather than being a little bit clearer about what their main focus is.”
Kuncel has spoken at Character Collaborative meetings a couple of times. He described the inherent challenge of combining all the information culled from applications and using it to assemble a freshman class. “The idea of trying to measure multiple things about people is great,” he said, “but the relying exclusively on human judgment to combine it together is problematic. We tend to take good information and make it poorer.”
One complication involves the nature of college applications, which are, in part, a factual record of a student’s accomplishments. Susie Q. Applicant got a B-plus in AP Chemistry. She scored a 1400 on the SAT. She was co-captain of the softball team for two seasons.
But an application is also a performance. Susie revised her personal statement five times, reworking the numerous details to better connect her assessment of her leadership skills to a description of specific experiences. She did so on the advice of her college counselor, who carefully crafted a glowing letter of recommendation that was, in part, a subjective rendering of Susie’s determination and potential.
In the end, an application might or might not be an accurate rendering of who a student really is. But it’s almost certainly going to be an expression of what applicants think will most impress admissions officers.
“Admissions folks, especially at highly selective institutions, sometimes seem to dramatically overestimate the level of authenticity that comes across their computer screens when they’re reading an application,” said Emmi Harward, executive director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools. “I don’t think they always consider how much a student is thinking ‘What do they want to hear from me?’ as opposed to ‘What do I want to say?’”
Harward is a former college counselor who worked in admissions offices at two highly selective private colleges early in her career. She understands why institutions deluged with applications might seek other ways to distinguish among highly qualified applicants with virtually identical academic credentials.
“But I don’t know what a rubric for discerning character looks like for adults, let alone for kids whose prefrontal cortex is not fully formed, who are just trying to get through the day between precalculus and soccer practice,” she said. “It’s putting a whole lot on a 17-year-old to have to display character and figure out how that’s going to be discerned in an application.”
Bigham, co-founder and executive director of Accept (Admissions Community Cultivating Equity & Peace Today), previously worked in admissions before becoming a college counselor. “I don’t see these character questions ever being applied to wealthy white kids ever,” she said. “Would Sam Bankman-Fried still get into college under these character measures? What about Brock Turner and all the people who do active harm on our campuses? Someone wrote recommendation letters for all those students. If you can tell me how we’re going to keep people like that out, then I’ll start to care about character.”
So while Bigham understands why well-intentioned institutions might wish to signal the importance of character, she sees a disconnect: “We demand so much of the applicant, but we demand so little of the college.”
Hawkins, at NACAC, said he understands such concerns: “It’s important that we do not add to the admissions process, which could burden applicants.”
In the past, some colleges have experimented with assessments of noncognitive factors that supplemented their traditional application. But NACAC’s initiative, Hawkins said, will emphasize ways that institutions can better assess a student’s intangible qualities by using information they’re already collecting in admissions.
“For a long time, colleges have struggled with how to consider these intangibles in a way that’s defensible,” Hawkins said. “With the recent Supreme Court decision, it’s very clear that, moving forward, anything we do when evaluating those soft skills needs to be made tangible within a framework and logical set of standards. It has to be more consistent and defined, and made more transparent to students and families.”
Kuncel, the professor at Minnesota, hopes that the disruption caused by Supreme Court’s decision will spur colleges to re-evaluate how they attempt to measure character. “Most of their efforts now fall short of what they would like to do,” he said. “But does that mean that we should just give up on it? No. Can we move the needle in terms of enrolling more ethical students, more high-achieving students, students who are achieving in multiple domains? Absolutely.”