9 Personality and Character Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants
Colleges want to see more than just good grades and test scores on your college application. They want evidence that you possess personal qualities associated with success in college. Here are 9 personal qualities colleges look for in applicants.
It’s no secret that selective colleges look beyond the numbers when reviewing applicants. They also look for various personality and character traits. In a survey administered by the National Association for College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), 70 percent of admissions counselors said character traits were “considerably” or “moderately” important in their admissions decisions.
But some admissions experts think it’s even more important now for students to demonstrate these qualities in their applications. “Today, with the impact of COVID-19, renewed focus on access and equity, and rapid alteration of the testing world, there is an accelerated movement toward holistic admission, including the elevation of character attributes,” said David Holmes, executive director of the Character Collaborative, a nationwide consortium of colleges, high schools, and educational organizations advocating for the use of character in college admissions and a co-sponsor of the NACAC survey.
It’s not only selective colleges (those accepting less than 50% of applicants) that pay close attention to character attributes. These qualities may also come into play for students applying to less-selective schools. “Students wishing for merit scholarships or entry into honors programs at less competitive schools will need to show their character,” said Dr. Amy Morgenstern, former associate director of the honors program at Wright State University and current founder and CEO of Blue Stars Admissions Consulting. “It's essential for any college-bound student who intends to contribute to society.”
What are some character traits colleges look for?
Increasingly, colleges look for personal qualities that foster cooperation, community, and compassion, explained Morgenstern. “It’s no longer the individual leader at the helm; now it’s the collaborative team member who attracts attention; students’ self-centered career ambitions are not as appreciated as much as sincere personal and professional aspirations to make the world better.
Morgenstern advises her students to highlight the “7Cs” in their essays and applications: collaboration, commitment, character, curiosity, cultural intelligence, challenge, and creativity.
Colleges may look for a different set of character qualities or define these traits in different ways. But when colleges describe their ideal candidates, they often mention some qualities more than others. Here are 9 character traits that colleges often cite when they describe what they are looking for in students.
Colleges want to see that you are passionate about learning – not just about a single academic area—but about the world around you. “We want to see the kind of curiosity and enthusiasm that will allow you to spark a lively discussion in a freshman seminar and continue the conversation at a dinner table,” states Stanford University’s website.
Show the colleges you have applied to how much you love to and want to learn, and what excites you intellectually. If you can demonstrate that you have a “growth mindset”— the belief that one can enhance intelligence, abilities and talents through hard work – that is also a plus, according to a report from Harvard University’s School of Education.
Some colleges want students who not only challenge themselves, but also who persevere through those challenges, set goals, and achieve them. You might hear this quality described as “grit” or “commitment.” A study by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth indicates that “grit” might be a more effective predictor of success than IQ.
You might have demonstrated persistence by sticking with challenging classes or activities even though you didn’t excel in them at first or any time you worked hard to accomplish a goal — despite obstacles or setbacks. The key is to show that despite any obstacles, you maintained your energy, enthusiasm and passion for what you set out to achieve.
Here, risk-taking doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in high-risk activities like bungee jumping or mountain climbing — it means venturing out of your comfort zone, be it in the classroom or other areas of life. Taking a risk can be joining the debate club even though you have a fear of public speaking, trying a new activity, or taking a challenging class. Colleges want students who are not afraid to make mistakes — and who understand that mistakes are part of learning.
As set forth on MIT’s website, “When people take risks in life, they learn resilience because risk leads to failure as often as it leads to success. The most creative and successful people — and MIT is loaded with them — know that failure is part of life and that if you stay focused and don’t give up, goals are ultimately realized.”
Some colleges also look for students with compassion. According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, “Compassion literally means ‘to suffer together.’ [It’s] …the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” Research shows that college students who show a higher level of concern for their peers and classmates have higher levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy.
Georgia Tech lists “compassion for others” as one of eight character traits it values. Syracuse University states, “You are a strong candidate if you strengthen and support those around you, even as you are working to develop yourself.” UCLA looks for “ demonstrated concern for others and for the community.”
Showing compassion is not just about expressing empathy for others, it’s also taking action to help them. Engaging in community service work, tutoring struggling students at your school, willingly taking care of siblings to help a parent working multiple jobs, or political activism can all be fueled by compassion.
College can be a great opportunity to engage with people from different backgrounds and cultures and to consider ideas, perspectives, and opinions that might be new or different from your own. Colleges want to see that you can respectfully consider different points of view and that you welcome the chance to consider these perspectives. For example, Pomona College’s website states that it values “an openness to new ideas and rejection of easy answers.”
Critical thinking — another skill that colleges value — requires the ability to consider all arguments and ideas – even those with which you may disagree.
6. Social Consciousness
Many colleges say they are looking for students who hope to apply their academic and career interests to improve the world around them. “Our ideal candidates are inspired to emulate our founder Benjamin Franklin by applying their knowledge in service to society, to our community, the city of Philadelphia, and the wider world,” states the University of Pennsylvania on its admissions page. Oberlin College says it seeks “individuals who care about the world, who believe they can make it a better place, and who have the courage to try.”
Does your academic area of interest intersect with a cause that you truly care about? For example, you might want to major in engineering and use the skills you acquire to combat global warming. You might also show your sense of social responsibility through consistent volunteer work or activism.
Based on a recent Adobe study, 95% of admissions decision-makers believe in the value of creative skills. Creativity is listed among the top qualities considered by Duke, MIT, and UCLA and it doesn’t necessarily have to be expressed through activities in the arts. Colleges often look for creative thinkers, problem solvers, innovators and entrepreneurs. To demonstrate creative thinking, you might include an experience in which you came up with a creative solution to a problem or took a unique approach to an assignment.
Colleges want to know that you can collaborate well with students and faculty, and that you are able to put the needs of your team over your own. If you had a leadership role on a team, it’s important to demonstrate that you were an effective leader of a cohesive group — even if your team ultimately fails. “You might think colleges look for leadership skills,” explained Morgenstern. “They do. But they’re most interested in leaders who bring people together.”
Sports isn’t the only area where you can illustrate teamwork — collaboration can also be found in lab or other classroom assignments, volunteer work, or the performing arts.
9. Cultural Intelligence
Colleges want students who appreciate cultural diversity and are eager to engage with and learn from people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.
In describing successful applicants, USC has said “They are interested in the world, in other peoples and cultures, and enjoy examining important issues from a global perspective.” To express this trait, you don’t need to have traveled extensively or lived in a foreign country. You might discuss your interest in mastering a foreign language, your experience advocating for an international issue you care about, or your participation in local projects where you worked with people from different cultures.
What personality traits do you have?
Chances are you possess many of the character traits colleges look for—but you might need some help identifying them in yourself. When working with her clients, Morgenstern uses a character traits worksheet to help students identify experiences and situations where they’ve demonstrated these qualities, guides them in cultivating these qualities throughout high school and helps them weave them into their personal statement and supplemental essays.
The important thing is to be honest about yourself, so your application is an authentic representation of who you are. The “real you” is who colleges want to get to know.