As COVID-19 and other social changes push us out of our norms, we again should consider how nonacademic criteria can be used in admission decisions.
This a distressing and challenging time in America. We are experiencing a deadly pandemic, reacting to police violence, confronting racism in its many forms, and enduring divisive national leadership. In education, COVID-19 has elicited changes that would have been beyond belief just a few months ago, including universal online teaching and students learning from their homes.
We are seeing a sharp movement away from standardized testing in college admission, with hundreds more colleges becoming test-optional in admission. Others have dropped the SAT and ACT for the next year. Most dramatically, the University of California system has decided to drop these tests entirely while they reconsider the value and fundamental fairness of standardized tests. An important question is whether these changes will accelerate the rise of holistic admission and the role of character factors in deciding who gets in.
Before these developments, NACAC research showed that character was already rising as an important consideration in admission. In an annual survey, NACAC received responses from 447 four-year undergraduate institutions, with 25.9 percent reporting that positive character attributes are a factor of “considerable” importance in admission. Another 44.4 percent reported that character attributes are of “moderate” importance in admission. This is an eye-opening finding: 70 percent of colleges view character as important in the admission process.
To further this research, in February/March the Character Collaborative sent a survey to its college members to explore how institutions incorporate character specifically in the admission process. Eighteen institutions responded, providing important insights into the factors colleges consider in their admission decisions. (For more details about the sample, read the full report.)
Prominence of Character Attributes
For many institutions, paying attention to character in admission is a matter of “keeping the faith” with the institutional mission statement. Indeed, admission officers refer often to the college’s mission statement as a guiding factor in their work. (For admission deans making the case for seeking students with demonstrated character strengths, pointing to the institution’s mission statement serves to reinforce the argument.) Among respondents, 14 of the 18 colleges indicated that character-related attributes are contained in their mission statement. A wide variety of attributes were mentioned. The most frequently mentioned attributes were:
- Civic engagement and acting in the public interest
- Empathy, compassion
- Support and respect for each other
- Commitment to diversity, equity, and justice
- Curiosity and imagination
- Free expression and independent thinking
- Problem-solving ability
- Living a life of purpose and success
- Respect for the natural environment
- Transparency and accountability
Turning to the admission process, all 18 colleges reported that they look explicitly for evidence of character strengths in the review process. Respondents were asked to specify the three most important character attributes that they assess. The most frequently mentioned attributes were:
- Service to others
- Respect for others, kindness
The colleges were asked “how much do admission decisions depend on academic (e.g., test scores, grades) versus nonacademic indicators (e.g., evidence of character strengths, examples of community service, extracurricular activities)?” Sixteen colleges responded to this question, with nine indicating that academics are weighted at 80 percent and nonacademic factors at 20 percent. The other seven colleges weigh academics at 60 percent and nonacademic factors at 40 percent. Focusing on the way admission offices operate, 14 of the 18 schools reported that admission staff are “expected to address character evidence in their narrative or verbal summaries of candidates.”
How the Process Works
The colleges were asked to indicate which parts of their institutions’ application processes provide evidence of character attributes and the relative importance of such evidence to admission decisions. Similar to the NACAC national survey, the personal statement (14 of 18), teacher recommendations (13 of 18), application form with questions about service activities (12 of 18), and college counselor report (12 of 18) are the most frequent sources of evidence. Grades and interviews are less frequent sources, but nevertheless play a role at slightly less than half the colleges. As for grades, a high GPA may indicate traits such a strong work ethic, tenacity, and strong goal-orientation.
Although SAT/ACT tests are perceived by many to focus exclusively on academic and cognitive skills, three of 18 colleges look to SAT/ACT scores for evidence of character. One explanation is that standardized tests have sections from which one can infer noncognitive, including character, strengths. Examples include writing assignments and problems that require creativity and intellectual perseverance.
Only one school used a character-based questionnaire. At a time when interviews are no longer required by many schools, it’s interesting that almost half of the schools look to interviews for evidence of character.
Apart from where institutions look for evidence of character, we asked what instruments or tools are used to rate an applicant’s character? Among 17 respondents, we found:
- Standard admission rating form for each staff member that includes character factors, 11
- Narrative summary of character attributes by staff members, 10
- Overall office character rating compiled from multiple data point, 9
- Rubric (list of character attributes w/rating scale), 8
- Standard rating form with character questions submitted by teacher or outside source, 2
- Character questionnaire, 1
- Other, 1
Each college indicated that it uses two or more of these tools in assessing character attributes. With multiple sources of information about an applicant’s character, how did admission offices integrate this information into decision-making?
How Decisions Are Made
Respondents were asked to describe the process by which evidence of character attributes is incorporated into admission decisions. Sixteen colleges provided short descriptions. There was wide variation in the way these admission leaders chose to respond, but it is evident that each institution has a deliberate process for including character.
Technology-oriented institutions described their processes:
“First readers make an assessment of academic and non-cognitive attributes and incorporate those factors into a written narrative used to defend a recommended decision. The reader uses a rating (character) rubric to assist in developing the written narrative.“
“Counselors read applications for students’ level of passion demonstrated toward STEM areas. In such cases, there is weight placed on students’ leadership, commitment, and innovation with competition teams related to robotics, autonomous and fuel-efficient vehicles, math, science, debate, programming and other such STEM related events/organizations. We also read… counselor/teacher recommendations and seek intellectual curiosity and/or problem-solving skills. Finally, we read essays for students’ interest and empathy toward identifying and solving social and scientific issues.”
Liberal arts colleges described their processes:
“Counselor(s) rating (of character) along with academic metrics provide for automatic admission; ‘borderline’ academic credentialed students are then reviewed by a second set of committee members.”
“We will look for evidence of character attributes throughout the entire file and give students ‘credit’ for character attributes if the evidence is found in more than one location in the file (for example a teacher says the student is deeply curious, the counselor mentions it, and the student demonstrated signs of this in the interview).”
“Academics are going to drive our process but once we determine who is academically qualified then we use the character assessment to make selection decisions.”
“We consider academic, intellectual vitality, and community ratings. Character traits are considered mostly in the latter two categories as evidenced in writing samples, recommendations, and sometimes optional interviews.“
“Our review process is ever-evolving as we are now test-optional and a pilot college for Landscape. We also use the Committee Based Evaluation (CBE), allowing two readers on the initial review.”
Large public and private institutions wrote the following:
“About 10 percent of students are admitted from among 90 percent with strong academic credentials. The holistic review undertaken by readers incorporates an analysis of character attributes, many of which are explicitly referenced on reader rating sheets.”
“We review students’ involvement, rigor of coursework, and details disclosed in personal statement. We also use the Landscape tool through the College Board.”
“Non-cognitive character attributes are incorporated into our non-academic rating and into our TILE scores (Talent, Initiative, Leadership, Excitement) both of which are heavily considered by our committee in admission when weighing potential admits.”
Although these institutions focus explicitly on finding evidence of character strengths, there is great variation in approaches and, presumably, in how character serves as a determinant of who gets in. Admission staff use research-based rubrics, various rating scales, narrative commentary based on reading the file, evidence from reading personal essays, and more.
How all this data fits into the decision logic of an admission team is unclear.
Discussions with admission leaders at these and other colleges indicate that they often seek out the scholarly literature and experts on non-cognitive traits such as character and how these traits can be measured in a valid way. Just five of the 18 colleges in this study, however, have carried out research to investigate the connection between their character ratings and specific outcomes of importance to the institution.
A broader perspective is necessary. The history of American education reveals that non-academic factors, such as moral/ethical values and character attributes, have always factored into admission decisions. In the first three centuries after the founding of the first American colleges, college admission officers, especially at colleges for the elite, felt free to inquire whether the candidate was from a “good family” or exhibited good “American values” or was a “go-getter” likely to rise above their upbringing. Cultural bias was inherent in these judgments.
In the early 1960s, the College Board and ETS evidenced interest in “nonintellective factors that affect college guidance and admission” and urged more research in this field. Since that time, researchers have gradually expanded the knowledge base. Now, amid social upheaval and the contemporary character “movement” in admission, we are learning more each year about the best ways to assess character attributes and how to make good decisions. As educators, we owe this to our students, families, and nation. In the larger picture, out of crisis can come real change. Our hope is that the current moment will lead to the elevation of character in education, in opening doors of opportunity, and in elevating attributes of character across the nation.
David Holmes is the executive director of the Character Collaborative.
Incoming NACAC CEO Angel Pérez recently endorsed “Care Counts in Crisis: College Admissions Deans Respond to COVID-19” from the Making Caring Common initiative. The website describes the purpose: “This statement was developed in collaboration with admissions leaders and has been endorsed by leaders at more than 315 institutions across the United States. It describes what college admissions offices value and expect—and don’t expect—from students during the pandemic.”