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By David Holmes, Executive Director of the Character Collaborative

College admission will be vastly different in the current academic year and, it appears, over the long term. There are several external forces at play that are changing how colleges will do admission, including COVID-19 and a renewed commitment to equity and access for all Americans.

For those of us who believe in the fundamental importance of character, we are seeing that an important trend is accelerating: more and more colleges are moving toward “holistic” admission. This broader view of admission incorporates non-academic factors, especially character attributes, in deciding who gets in. Attributes of character that are considered in holistic admission include resilience, caring, perseverance, gratitude, grit, curiosity, integrity, service to others, and more.

With these changes, we can envision – for the first time – an admissions process in which character criteria are embedded in what colleges look for and in deciding who gets in. In this new world of admission, character is assigned a specific weight among other important factors, such as academic attainment and promise.

Dynamics of Change

Over the past few months, we have seen a vastly diminished role for standardized tests, namely, the SAT and ACT. Hundreds of colleges have become “test optional,” dropped the tests for the immediate future, or simply concluded that the tests are not as important as they thought. These actions have created a vacuum that reinforces the rising interest in using character as an explicit criterion in the college admission process.

Admission leaders across the nation anticipate that many changes are likely to be permanent. Although standardized tests may reemerge on many campuses, the commitment to character is real. A recent national survey found that 70% of colleges consider character of “considerable” or “moderate” importance in admission (Research Brief, National Association for College Admission Counseling, February 2020). This is an eyeopening finding, revealing that character attributes are a part of the core beliefs of colleges and their admissions staff. To fully realize this new vision of college admission, however, two things need to happen.

1. Character education must continue to grow as a prominent part of what happens at home, in schools, on sports fields, and in our communities.

Character.org and its Schools of Character are a great example of how to advance this critical goal. Other initiatives across the nation – outdoor education programs, authentic avenues of community service, parenting programs such as Project Success based at Stanford University, programs that build character through sports, leadership development programs, and more – must be replicated widely.

At a time of crisis across the nation and the unyielding impact of the Coronavirus, there are daunting obstacles to progressive action. Yet, this is also a moment of opportunity. Elevating character, I believe, is the way out of our travails. Specifically, we need young people of character who, now and in the future, will help make our nation a fairer, more humane, more inclusive society. It is imperative that colleges open their doors to promising young people of character, regardless of background. It would be tragic if young men and women
who have benefitted so profoundly from the programs of Character.org were not sought out – and accepted – by colleges.

2. We must ensure that the “character movement” in college admission continues to expand in scope.

Fortunately, as evidenced by the national survey noted above, more and more colleges are looking to admit students who demonstrate attributes of character. It is significant that numerous colleges, including highly selective ones, are developing strategies and tools for assessing character in a feasible and valid way. Now, with the loosening of the grip of standardized tests in admission, will more colleges commit to a holistic approach to admission? Will more schools and colleges look explicitly at character criteria in the college admission process?

Important Actors

To advance the character imperative and a new admissions equation, we need to build from the ground up. There are several indispensable actors:

To avoid the pathologies that have infected so many parents (e.g., the Varsity Blues scandal: infatuation with a small number of highly selective colleges; the “fever” over getting high scores on standardized tests), parents need to recognize that there are literally hundreds of good colleges across the nation. Looking for the right fit and raising children of character is the best strategy for fostering success in college, work, and life.

In addition to ensuring a solid academic foundation for all students, schools need to reinforce – day by day – the right values. This may entail an explicit program (e.g., a leadership program; a challenging outdoor program; the activities of Character.org’s Schools of Character), but the aim needs to be embedded in everything that goes on in and out of the classroom. Sports teams, for example, represent a great opportunity for coaching character.

School Counselors
The connection between school and college is a critical role for college counselors. Schools must support the professional development of counselors. College admission is a complex, ever-evolving world and requires knowledge, wisdom, and discrete skills. Now, with the growth of holistic admission and the elevation of character criteria, counselors need to know how to embed character evidence in letters of recommendation, student essays, and the application itself. Recognizing that colleges have different missions and admission
priorities, the counselor needs to know which colleges are the most committed to admitting students of character.

College Admission Staff
Several innovative organizations, such as Making Caring Common at Harvard, the Character Collaborative and the Coalition for College, are working with admission leaders across the nation to advance the science and practice of employing character in admission. What evidence and what tools are needed to make judgments about a candidate’s character for admission? How do we ensure that character assessment is fair, consistent, and valid? How do we discriminate among candidates when it comes to deciding who gets in, especially
when character is a factor? Fortunately, thought leaders in admission are making excellent progress in these crucial areas.

Institutional Leaders
Messages and actions by influential leaders in society have an important impact on the aspirations of youth. School principals, college presidents, corporate CEOs, and government officials, for example, must speak about the importance of good character and ensure that their organizations “keep the faith” with these words.

Going Forward Together

When leaders from important constituencies are aligned, fundamental change becomes possible. Catalyzed by new forces in society as well as leaders at every level stepping forward, a new admission world is emerging. This is a world in which promising youth of character are recognized, supported, and sought by colleges. The challenges of our COVID19 existence are making all of this happen much sooner than we ever expected.

These are significant questions for those who believe in the fundamental importance of character. If young men and women of character are sought after by colleges, it is far more likely that educating for character will have a deep and long-term impact on our nation. With the changes occurring in testing and the trend toward looking at the whole person through holistic admission, there are authentic reasons for optimism.

Out of crisis can come real change. Our hope is that the upheavals around COVID-19 will lead to the elevation of character in education and across the nation.

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