Character in College Admissions

By Jonathan Sparling

  • April 19, 2022
  • 60 min watch


Over the past several years, the college admissions process has gone through changes and probably looks a lot different from when you applied to schools. Now that you’re starting the process again – this time with your children – it’s important to get up to speed.

We (virtually) sat down with four experts from higher ed institutions to discuss the latest trends in college admissions. During our Learn from the Experts session, they shared valuable advice for students applying to schools and their families.

Brennan Barnard, Khan Lab Academy
Tom Bear, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
Don Bishop, University of Notre Dame
Stephanie Dupaul, University of Richmond


We want to consider the whole person because they are bringing the whole person to campus.


Lead with your whole self

Colleges are interested in learning everything about your student, even what makes them tick. That’s the idea behind holistic admissions. “We want to consider the whole person because they are bringing the whole person to campus,” says Stephanie Dupaul from University of Richmond.

When reviewing an application, Stephanie wants to be able to discern the choices a student made in high school, their passions and interests, and the story their application has to tell.

Don Bishop from University of Notre Dame goes one step further. For him, it’s important to understand what drives a student to excel. For the college essay, Don advises students to “pick a story that talks about you and your motivations.”

Brennan Barnard from Khan Lab Academy looks at holistic admissions like a decathlon. Excelling in one area is great, but holistic admissions is about showcasing talents across many areas.

Tom Bear from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology reminds students that holistic admissions allow students to “present a genuine image of themselves.” “Holistic means you have a much bigger breath to present yourself,” says Tom.


Find a great match

When looking at colleges and building a list, Brennan advises students to find a few great matches rather than the perfect fit. And your student can start by getting personal.

Stephanie says that colleges are looking at applicants who will align with the values of their institutions. She reminds students to do the same. Tom adds: “Institutions have a responsibility to communicate to students what attributes we want in our student body.”

If a college’s focus misaligns with what a student cares about, there’s no reason to try to fit a square peg into a round whole. Continue looking for a better match – it’s out there.


Be less boastful but be more descriptive of who you are and why you do what you do.


Demonstrate character

Colleges that factor in character during the admissions process recognize that students have a lot to share. “We want to encourage students to pursue the things that drive their motivations and their passions, and really exemplify those,” says Tom.

How can your student show character? The college essay is the perfect opportunity. “Tell us a story that demonstrates to us who you are,” says Don. “Be less boastful but be more descriptive of who you are and why you do what you do.”

Another way is with the letters of recommendation. Brennan encourages students to focus on the values and character traits they like most about themselves and communicate those to their teachers writing the letters. “Be proud of things you’ve done and who you are,” says Brennan. That’s something colleges want to know.

As always, keep things in perspective. “We recognize that character is a formative thing,” says Stephanie. “Don’t panic if you haven’t had to overcome adversity in your life. Be your authentic and true self.”


Set realistic expectations

“Colleges are not looking for a laundry list of activities. They are looking for meaningful engagement,” says Brennan. And this will look different for everyone. If your student is feeling pressure to accomplish as much as possible, it’s important to take a step back and set goals that can be achieved.

“It’s the depth of what you do. It’s going deeper into a couple things that you really care about,” says Don.

With high school classes, the same holds true. “We care about curriculum, but we also recognize there are curricular choices,” says Stephanie. “We are trying to be realistic.”


Don’t overthink test scores

According to our panelists, it’s simple. If a student gets great scores that demonstrate their academic ability, then submit those scores to colleges – even if a school is test-optional. Just don’t bother sending scores to test-blind schools.

And, for students who aren’t confident test takers, remember: through the lens of holistic admissions, test scores are just one piece.

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