Character and Balance in College Admissions

This year’s annual meeting of the Character Collaborative featured distinguished speakers from academia, including researchers, high school counselors, admissions professionals, and experts in students and higher education who are focused on the importance of character in admissions. To get a sense of what one college is doing in regard to character, consider what Swarthmore College does. Swarthmore specifically identifies the character characteristics of the student it is seeking: intellectually curious and  enthusiastic for learning; creative and a proactive problem-solver; generous towards others; civically engaged; willing to work hard and to seek help; a potential contributor to campus life; a sustained commitment;  and an open-mindedness in general and to the liberal arts.

Swarthmore and many of its peers are increasingly assessing character as a factor in making admissions decisions as they move away from standardized testing to test optional and test blind (also known as test free) policies. To put testing in perspective, consider that for one Ivy League school’s admittedly single-digit admitted students, only 10-11% had the highest possible test scores. So  there are factors other than test scores under consideration, and one of those considerations is character. By the way,  the Common Application is working on how to capture character in its application.

A highlight of the second day of the meeting was a presentation by Dr. Denise Pope, a Senior Lecturer at Stanford University who is a respected specialist in curriculum studies, service learning, student engagement, and school reform. Dr. Pope spoke to the Zoom group about mental health and college admissions, reiterating what those of us in the profession keep telling our students and families: Where you go to college is much less important than what you do there. You can read the detailed study online through her organization, Challenge Success, which is affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. The three main points of the paper are:

*Ratings are Problematic.

*College Selectivity is not a Reliable Predictor of Student Learning, Job Satisfaction or Well-Being.

*Engagement in College is More Important than Where You Attend.

Recognizing those statements will go far in reducing the mental anguish that currently surrounds so many high school students, exacerbated by the social isolation of the Covid era.

In her talk, Dr. Pope emphasized  the importance of finding the right balance between rigor and course load. It is crucial for students to find the right challenge level in their classes while at the same time get enough sleep, do chores, and essentially, “have a life.”

You  may have read that one of the qualities that colleges are looking for in applicants is “grit,” a subject that Dr. Pope also addressed.  She is not a proponent of the word, since she believes it can have a negative connotation, suggesting to students that they keep working and working until they drop. Her preference is perseverance and resilience, more laudable qualities that reflect a balance in life.



  • By the way, the photo that accompanies this post is by Joseph Greve.