The Attributes of a Successful College Applicant

A number of college admissions directors are quietly changing the playbook on what makes a leading prospect. There has been a lot of soul-searching since 2019’s admissions scandal perpetrated by corrupt organizer Rick Snyder and the willing wealthy and famous rule-breaker parents who cheated the system in a number of ways. What we are seeing is a significant shift.

EVIDENCE OF INTEGRITY GROWS IN IMPORTANCE

Of course, grades, test scores and activities remain important, but top schools are adjusting how they weight key factors in the wake of the college admissions scandal. Directors are quietly turning attention away from test scores; indeed, FairTest estimates the rate of colleges choosing test-optional is growing 25% compared with 2018.

While there are more reasons than scandal involving a school no longer requiring the SAT or ACT, it’s interesting that at the same time admissions directors are focusing more on the integrity and character of freshmen applicants.

“Authenticity and honesty are at a premium,” according to one executive on the ground. College essay readers are keen to see attributes such as resiliency, risk-taking, leadership, and initiative.

EXPECT MORE SUBJECTIVE INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

But for schools that have a pool of applicants with excellent grades and test scores, how do they ramp up subjective areas such as resiliency, honesty and other sought-after attributes? Expect more interview questions beyond asking about a favorite H.S. course and more about a difficult life situation or confronting cheating in the classroom or initiative taken in an extracurricular.

NEW WAYS TO ASSESS CHARACTER

We are also seeing such organizations as The Character Collaborative expand operations. This volunteer organization of colleges, secondary schools, professional associations, research organizations and counselors have the stated goal of helping colleges jump-start a consistent assessment of character in their institution-specific admission process.

SHOW SOUGHT-AFTER ATTRIBUTES IN RESUME

How does all this affect the bright high school student who is preparing for college? Start early building a resume that goes the extra step to stand out for admissions directors. Find a club that performs public outreach or fundraising, be a mentor to younger students, get on a leadership track for a sport or peer organization, reach out to community organizations that reflect personal interests. Prove loyalty by babysitting for the same family for years or leadership in marching band sections. Highlight selflessness, humility, teamwork and/or initiative in the Common App essay.

As Robert Massa, the chair of Character Collaborative puts it: “It’s really critical for all of us to signal the importance of character, in our society, in ourselves and in our students.” Massa said.

–MIKE RYAN