How “Committed” Colleges and Universities Assess Character in Admission: A Study of Institutional Practices

Executive Summary by David Holmes, Executive Director, April 2020

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) conducts an annual survey of college admission practices. NACAC and the Character Collaborative worked together on the 2018-2019 survey to include inquiries — for the first time — about the role of character in admission. Among the 447 four-year undergraduate institutions that responded, 25.9% reported that positive character attributes are a factor of “considerable” importance in admission. Another 44.4% reported that character attributes are of “moderate” importance in admission. The reported level of interest in character is an affirmation that college admission offices pay serious attention to character.

In order to follow up on the NACAC survey and explore in greater depth how colleges incorporate character in admission, the Character Collaborative implemented in February-March 2020 a survey among its 31 college members to explore how institutions incorporate character in the admission process, with 18 colleges completing the survey. The responses among these institutions that consciously pay attention to character attributesin admission indicate that character is front-and-center in the way they think about their work.

  • College mission statements reinforce the idea that character is important to the institution
  • Each Institution defines “character” with terminology for particular attributes (e.g., resilience, perseverance). There is wide range of attributes specified under the character rubric.
  • Admission decisions “depend on” both academic and nonacademic factors, with non-academic attributes ranging from 20 to 40% in relative importance. Considering the popular perception that SAT and ACT scores and GPA determine who gets in, especially at selective institutions, the evident role of nonacademic factors is an important finding.
  • Every respondent looks explicitly for evidence of character strengths.
  • In the review process, staff at 14 of the 18 colleges are “expected” to address character evidence in their candidate summaries.

The respondents were asked to indicate which parts of the institution’s application process provide evidence of character attributes. Similar to responses in the NACAC report, 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 frequent sources of evidence. Grades and interviews are less frequent sources but nevertheless play a role at slightly less than half the colleges. At a time when interviews are no longer required by many schools, it is pertinent that almost half of the schools in both studies look to interviews for evidence of character. Although SAT/ACT tests are perceived by many to focus exclusively on academic and cognitive skills, 3 of 18 colleges look to SAT/ACT scores for evidence of character. Only one school uses a character-based questionnaire.

Respondents were asked to indicate what instruments or tools are used to rate an applicant’s character, with this pattern of response:

Standard admission rating form for each staff member                11 respondents that includes character factors

Narrative summary of character attributes by staff members        10

Overall office character rating compiled from multiple data points 9

Rubric (list of character attributes w/rating scale)                           8

Standard rating form with character questions submitted by         2                     teacher or other outside source

Character questionnaire                                                                1

Other                                                                                                1

Respondents were asked to describe the process by which evidence of character attributes is incorporated into admission decisions. These descriptions revealed wide variation in the way admission leaders use character. It is evident, however, that each institution has a deliberate process for doing so. 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 admissions team cannot determined from this current study.

Just 5 of the 18 colleges in this study have carried out research to investigate the connection between their character ratings and specific outcomes of importance to the institution (e.g., persistence to a degree, community engagement, academic performance, leadership roles, ethical conduct, etc.).

While the NACAC survey revealed that character attributes are important to the admission process of 70% of colleges and universities, this study provides detail on how character actually plays into admission. These findings stand out:

  • Character is embedded in the culture and life of the colleges via institutional mission and explicit attention to character criteria in deciding who gets admitted.
  • College admission officers are expected to look for evidence of specific character traits, such as resilience, service to others, kindness, etc., by examining candidate personal statements, recommendations, the application, GPA and interviews.
  • In the review process, admission staff utilize various tools for capturing character information in a systematic way, including narrative summaries of character attributes, rubrics, rating forms, and a team’s overall rating form for a candidate.
  • Colleges use a wide range of processes for incorporating academic and character data into the admission decision. There is no standard decision logic among institutions.

The member colleges of the Character Collaborative, including the 18 colleges sampled in this study, are the leading edge of advancing the role of character attributes in admission. While the Collaborative has developed consensus on “best practices,” there is still much to learn about the most effective ways to gather character evidence, ensure validity and fairness of various assessments, and incorporate character data in the decision process.

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