Survey Report by David Holmes, Executive Director, April 2020
Since Angela Duckworth’s widely-watched TED talk on grit in 2013, there has been growing attention to character education and, moreover, to the role of character in how colleges and universities decide who gets in. One result was the creation of the Character Collaborative in 2016 with the mission to elevate the role of character attributes in admission. Today, the Collaborative membership includes 75 colleges and secondary schools, research entities, educational reform organizations, and professional associations.
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. NACAC received responses from 447 four-year undergraduate institutions, with 25.9% reporting 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. Only 29.6% of respondents indicated that character is of “limited” or “no” importance.
Although grades, strength of curriculum and standardized test scores were more highly rated factors, the reported level of interest in character is an affirmation that college admission offices pay serious attention to character. NACAC CEO Joyce Smith pointed out, however, that “further research is needed to more thoroughly explore the various ways college gauge a student’s character…” Toward this end, the Character Collaborative implemented in February-March 2020 a survey among its college members to explore how institutions incorporate character in the admission process.
Since each of the Collaborative’s college members is committed to developing effective ways to incorporate character attributes in admission, this study addressed the practices of the “already committed.” Thus, we can expect more evidence of the consideration of character in admission among Collaborative members than in the general population of colleges and universities.
Assured of anonymity, 18 of the Collaborative’s 31 college members completed the survey. Each survey was completed by the chief enrollment management officer or the admission dean. The profile of respondents is representative of the cohort of 31 member colleges of the Collaborative. Because the aim of the study was to discern the most advanced practices, the return rate is not a concern.
The study sample (and the overall Collaborative membership) includes a predominance of private colleges and universities with a high degree of selectivity and smaller enrollments. Sixteen of the 18 schools (89%) are private institutions. Ten of the 18 schools (55%) have an undergraduate enrollment of 3600 students or less. Ten of the schools (55%) accept fewer than 50% of their applicants, which is deemed by NACAC definition to be “selective.” Another 7 schools accept between 50 and 60% of applicants.
This profile is similar to the pattern of response in the NACAC national survey. The NACAC report posed this interpretation:
“Not surprisingly, private colleges rated character traits more highly than public colleges. On average, private institutions have fewer applicants, which may allow for a more holistic review process that places additional emphasis on non-cognitive factors. Selective colleges (those accepting fewer than 50 percent of applicants) were more likely to rate character attributes as considerably important than those institutions that were less selective. Highly selective institutions have many applicants with similarly high grades and test scores, and therefore tend to consider a broader range of factors, including positive character traits.”
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. 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. A content analysis of responses revealed that the most frequently attributes (and number of mentions) were as follows:
Civic engagement and acting in the public interest (6)
Empathy, compassion (6)
Support and respect for each other (5)
Commitment to diversity, equity and justice (4)
Curiosity and imagination (4)
Free expression and independent thinking (4)
Problem-solving ability (3)
Living a life of purpose and success (3)
Respect for the natural environment (2)
Transparency and accountability (2)
Sample comments on the influence of institutional mission include:
“Empathy and compassion (are) reflected in our focus on improving the human condition and on personal development of members of our community”
“Integrity (is) reflected in our adherence to the highest ethical standards in personal and professional behavior, and in our commitment to transparency and accountability in governance and everything we do”
“As a STEM institution, we seek students who are problem-solvers. We seek this skill so our graduates will be inspired and prepared to for lives of success and purpose.”
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, with 15 colleges responding. The most frequently mentioned attributes, in descending order, were:
Service to others
Respect for others, kindness
Respondents were asked whether their admission team gives an “explicit weight” to character among admission criteria. Just 5 colleges answered in the affirmative, with 4 colleges indicating that character is weighted at 20% among all criteria. A 5th college puts character at 25%.
Looking more broadly, 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 9 indicating that academics are weighted at 80% and nonacademic factors at 20%. The other 7 colleges weight academics at 60% and nonacademic factors at 40%. The substantial percentages (20% and 40%) for nonacademic factors offer useful insight into what many admission offices look for.
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.”
These responses among institutions that consciously pay attention to character attributes in admission indicate that character is front-and-center in the way they think about their work.
- 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, almost all staff (staff at 14 of 18 colleges) are “expected” to address character evidence in their candidate summaries.
How The Process Works
Respondents to the 2018-2019 NACAC national survey were asked how assessments were made about character attributes of applicants. Response options included (1) content of essay/personal statement,” (2) teacher and/or counselor recommendation(s), (3) nature of extracurricular and/or work activities,” and (4) the interview. Affirmative answers among the respondents for the first three options ranged from 86.7% to 72.8%. 48.1% look at the interview. The summary report suggested that “demonstrating character is part of the inherent value of requiring essays, recommendations, and/or activities as part of the application.”
This current survey framed the question somewhat differently and provided additional response options. Table II summarizes the responses of the 18 institutions to this question: “Please indicate which parts of your institution’s application process provide evidence of character attributes and the relative importance of such evidence to admission decisions.”
Similar to 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. As for grades, a high GPA may indicate traits such a strong work ethic, tenacity and strong goal-orientation. 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. 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 uses a character-based questionnaire. The situation contrasts with the independent school world where the Character Skills Snapshot, which was piloted in 2018-2019 by the Enrollment Management Association (EMA), is made available to applicants along with EMA’s long-standing cognitive test for admission (SSAT). More than 16,500 applicants completed the Snapshot in the pilot year, and the Snapshot is now a prominent part of the landscape in independent school admission.
As for the importance of each source in making admission decisions, the rated importance parallels where colleges most frequently look for evidence.
Apart from where institutions look for evidence of character, what instruments or tools are used to rate an applicant’s character? Among 17 respondents (one college did not answer the question), we find the following:
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 9 data points
Rubric (list of character attributes w/rating scale) 8
Standard rating form with character questions submitted 2 by teacher or other outside source
Character questionnaire 1
Colleges indicated that they use more than one tool in assessing character attributes.
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. Example responses include the following.
Technology-oriented institutions described their process as follows:
“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 commented as follows:
“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, i.e. VP and Exec. Director before a final decision is made.”
“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).”
“We are testing our use of non-cognitive traits in our reading and review process this year. The goal is to formalize them more next year.”
“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, and 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 or 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% of students are admitted from among 90% 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 factors in 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 admissions team cannot determined from this current study.
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 5 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 (e.g., persistence to a degree, community engagement, academic performance, leadership roles, ethical conduct, etc.). Thus, given the variation of approaches and the paucity of institutional research, it is impossible to establish the absolute validity, consistency, and overall fairness of how colleges integrate character into admission decisions.
Yet, 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 (see Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History, 1962). 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. Of course, 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” but urged more research in this field. Since that time, researchers have gradually expanded the knowledge base in assessing non-academic traits, such as character attributes (see Rebecca Zwick, Who Gets In, 2017), pp. 143-161). Now, in the midst of the contemporary character “movement” in admission, we find that the institutions surveyed here, other college members of the Character Collaborative, and numerous researchers are advancing the knowledge base in a significant way. Collectively, we are learning more each year about the best ways to assess character attributes and how to make good decisions.
This study builds on NACAC’s 2018-2019 national survey by looking in depth at 18 member institutions of the Character Collaborative. By virtue of their membership in the Collaborative, these colleges are committed to incorporating character attributes in the admission process. With just 2 exceptions, the surveyed colleges are private and selective in admissions. The profile of the sample is similar to the profile of the 31 college members of the Collaborative.
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. Among the sample colleges, 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.
Considering that two-thirds of colleges and universities in the NACAC survey indicated that character is important in their admission process, it is imperative that many more institutions engage in the developmental work of organizations such as the Character Collaborative, Harvard’s Making Caring Common project and The Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California. As educators, we owe this to our students, families and nation.