The Importance of Character In the New College Application Reality

      Remarks at the IECA Fall Conference, November 19, 2020

      David Holmes,  Executive Director, Character Collaborative

 Profound changes are occurring in the world of college admission, with a gravitational pull toward a more holistic review process and toward the consideration of character criteria in deciding who gets in. This is a timely moment to reflect on the emerging role of character in college admission

The classic refrain sung by Jackie DeShannon, Dionne Warwick and others, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” leads to even more expansive plea. My version is this: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love…and a genuine character revolution. More than ever, we need to nurture qualities such caring, resilience, honesty and mutual respect in the way we parent, in the way we educate, in the way we govern, and in the way we select youth for opportunity.

Selecting youth for opportunity is what college admission is all about. A growing number of colleges, schools, educational reformers and counselors are bringing character criteria to the fore in education and in admission. Although institutional systems often work against a change such as this, it appears that — deep-down — almost all of us carry the belief that, at the end of the day, good character makes the greatest difference in school, work and life.

It’s not your SAT number, it’s the personal attributes you bring to the table that carry you through life. A growing body of research reinforces this basic assumption, including the work of Angela Duckworth, Nathan Kuncel, James Heckman and others.

This is all fine and good but, reform — real reform –is an unpredictable, meandering road. The pace of reform is glacial and, all too often, is not successful. Usually, it takes a profound crisis and upheaval to bring real change: a depression, a world war, a pandemic. Well, I am here to report that we are there. This is crisis time.

We all know the powerful external forces at play:

  • COVID-19 and its many impacts: financial; psychological; institutional
  • The Black Lives Matter movement and a renewed commitment to equity and access for all Americans
  • Revulsion against a culture of cynicism: cynicism about education, science, facts, and humane behavior toward others.

And, closer to home, our colleges are vibrating with change. We see:

  • Worsening financial pressures due to reduced enrollments and net tuition. Colleges outside the top 30 or 40, with small endowments and without a financial margin of error, are the most threatened.
  • A vastly diminished role of standardized tests — test optional, test blind, and no tests. This is a sudden shock to the system, almost hard to comprehend.
  • Anxious parents and children, asking: where to apply: how to afford it; what to present as evidence; do I really want a COVID college experience; am I in a healthy mental state; should we take a year off?
  • And, with diminished testing, an accelerating move toward “holistic” admission and looking at criteria beyond test scores and grades.

For all these reasons, we have admission offices forced to make changes on the run in the midst of tumult and uncertainty.

So, on the ground in the real world of admission, what does this all mean? What should we look for in the coming months? Important clues surfaced at the Character Collaborative’s annual meeting, which took place online on October 6-7, 2020.

The meeting attracted over 200 participants from across the nation. There was rich, substantive discussion among leaders on the frontlines of admission: college admission deans, college and independent counselors, reformers such as Angel Perez and Rick Weissbourd, and researchers such as Angela Duckworth and Sam Rikoon. These were discussions that crossed the silos of education, an infrequent but exhilarating dynamic.

The agenda focused on the challenges in the current year and on the characteristics of a “new selection paradigm.” Here are some conclusions that had unanimous agreement:

  • The pandemic has accelerated the pace of change in admission, especially toward a more holistic process.
  • With the tumult of the current moment, this a golden opportunity for reform.
  • As things change, transparency will be an even more critical requirement of admission.
  • We must carefully define and communicate the ingredients of holistic admission, such as character attributes, and educate students, parents, and colleagues about what is changing.
  • Because of the complexity of admission and the rise of holistic review, we need professional development for admission and school staffs. On this point, the Character Collaborative, in partnership with NACAC, is in the process of producing 7 online courses for admission staff and college counselors. Recognizing the volatile forces at play, we must be ready for course-corrections along the way. We must be flexible in the face of changing conditions.
  • It is essential that we bring, as Angela Duckworth urges, an “experimental mindset.” As responsible professionals, we must study the impact of what do.
  • Finally, these change will not “take” or last, unless the new way of doing things is embedded in the ethos of schools and colleges. This is a big challenge and will take wise, relentless leadership.

The Character Collaborative will be reporting the conclusions and commendations of the meeting to the admission community.

So, without a doubt, we know that college admission will be vastly different in the current academic year and, almost certainly, over the long term. At the ground level, and with the diminished or vanished role of SAT and ACT scores, admissions staff are asking:

How do we assess candidates?

What do we look for and how do we find it?

The answers are still evolving but some things are taking shape. Here is one emerging development: With the pressures to do things differently in admission, it appears that we are approaching a “character moment” in admission. Indeed, there is already a trajectory in this direction.

The most recent national survey of admissions staff  by NACAC found that 70% of colleges consider character of “considerable” or “moderate” importance in admission. This is an eye-opening finding, revealing that character attributes are a part of the core beliefs of colleges and their admissions staff. Moreover, this survey was done before the onset of the pandemic.

Now, with the diminishing role of standardized testing, we have a vacuum that reinforces the use non-academic factors, such as character attributes, in the college admission process.

To be sure, holistic admission and the character movement do not — should not — diminish the importance of academic factors. Colleges will discern academic ability and promise with an eye on grades, the strength of the curriculum, letters of recommendation, and evidence from student writing…but, in an increasing number of cases, not SAT scores.

In a more holistic view, attributes of character are explicitly taken into account. We can envision – for the first time – an admissions process in which character criteria are structured into what colleges look for and value. In this new reality, character criteria may be assigned a specific weight among other important factors such as academic attainment and promise. This step — to give specific weight, a specific rating…to non-academic factors, such as character, changes the whole game.

Let’s be clear: this is not a simple matter, easily executed. First, admission offices must make these assessments with the evidence — the tools — already available to them. It’s too late for the Fall, 2021 season, to add elements to the applicant package. So, we have these things to look at

— letters of recommendation

— the student essay

— entries on the application that seek character-related evidence

— perhaps an online interview

— perhaps a character rating form filled out by teachers

— perhaps a digital portfolio submitted by students\

Each of these tools has limitations, but this is where the art and science of admission comes into play. Experienced and smart admission staff know how to read between the lines and separate the wheat from the chaff.

Next, with the evidence available, admission offices must develop a consistent and valid way to assess an applicant’s character. This is the tricky part: if colleges elect to use some sort of rating system (versus simply noting the presence of a particular character attribute), how they rate a student’s character must have internal consistency: i.e., have a common standard and review process for all applicants to the school. In addition, recognizing that outside constituencies, especially parents and students, will have an interest in how the college assesses character, the process must stand up to external scrutiny. To provide a rating, we find that admission offices are using these avenues:

  • a standard character rating form, with a list of desired character attributes, to be completed by each reader
  • rubrics, which list character attributes, with a definition of each characteristic, where to look for it in an application, and numerical rating for each attribute
  • a narrative profile of a student’s character strengths
  • an overall character rating, compiled from multiple data points and agreed to by the team

In the trenches, developing and refining these tools is the hard work that admission staffs are grappling with. Collectively, admission officers are advancing the field in two critical areas: how to gather evidence of character and how to rate character, using that rating or assessment to distinguish one candidate over another.

Taking a step back to look at the big picture, it is important to remember that incorporating character criteria in admission is intended to

  • open doors of access for excluded students
  • create a more humane and unified campus environment
  • put youth on a path to success and happiness
  • and, ultimately, make the world a better place

These are the core beliefs of the “character movement.”

To fully realize this vision, two things need to happen. First, character education must continue to grow as a prominent part of what happens at home, in schools, on sports fields, and in our communities. At a time of sharp political and cultural divisions across the nation, mean-spirited conduct by too many citizens, and the unyielding impact of the Coronavirus, it may well be that the elevation of character is the way out of our travails. Simply put, we need young people of character who will help make our nation a fairer, more humane, more inclusive society.\

Second, we must ensure that the “character movement” in college admission continues to expand in scope. It is significant that numerous colleges, including highly selective ones, are developing strategies and tools for assessing character in a feasible and valid way.

For all intents and purposes, the train has left the station and, for that, one can be optimistic about the future of college admission. Character attributes — and ways to assess them — are growing in importance in admission offices across the nation. The 35 colleges and universities of the Character Collaborative are leading the way, reinforced by innovative work in many independent schools, in professional organizations such as NACAC, EMA and IECA, and among innovators such as Angela Duckworth at the UPenn’s Character Lab and Rick Weissbourd at Harvard’s Making Caring Common

We have a long way to go to ensure that character assessment is consistent, fair to all, meets standards of validity, and incorporates best practices. Fortunately, leading thinkers and educators are fully engaged in making this happen. As such, the “character revolution”  is well under way.



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