/* Round images */ .circular img { border-radius: 50%; }


By Sherryann Sylvestre, Counselor at Union Academy Charter School (NC)

Increasingly, colleges have been taking a more “holistic” approach to admissions; however, amidst the current landscape of navigating a global pandemic, even more colleges might utilize such an avenue. Typically used as an admission requirement, many colleges have now offered a one-year SAT/ACT testing waiver for the Class of 2021. In the absence of testing results, I concur with David Holmes, Executive Director of the Character Collaborative, that character will become more salient in the review of students’ credentials for college acceptances. Overall, barring test scores and gaining a more intimate scope of each student’s character may allow colleges to potentially grant “equity and access for all Americans,” as stated by Holmes.

When thinking about character as a criterion in college admissions, the work of Thomas Lickona and Matthew Davidson as cited by Scott Seider in his book, Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success, is noteworthy. Three different types of character are described: performance character, moral character, and civic character.

Performance character is “the qualities such as effort, diligence, perseverance, a strong work ethic, a positive attitude, ingenuity, and self-discipline needed to realize one’s potential for excellence in academics, co-curricular activities, the workplace, or any other area of endeavor.” Performance character is seen in students’ choices of a rigorous curriculum at school, including band, as well as in extracurricular activities. At Union Academy, in Monroe, NC, our school embodies eight character traits taught throughout the K-12 curriculum. Specifically, perseverance, optimism, and adaptability link to performance character.

Additionally, performance character links to the work of researcher Carol Dweck, who discovered two different mindsets described in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, People with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence, abilities, and talents are unchangeable. With this mindset, people typically avoid challenges and often give up in the face of adversity. Conversely, Dweck describes a growth mindset in which people have a laser focus on learning and developing their intelligence, abilities, and talents. Specifically, a growth mindset exemplifies performance character in which students are motivated to work hard, demonstrating grit and resilience.

Moral character, according to Lickona and Davidson, consists of “the qualities, such as integrity and respect, that are necessary for engaging in successful and ethical relationships with others.” Indeed, a moral compass is essential for healthy and fruitful relationships. Compassion, respect, and trustworthiness are among Union Academy’s traits aligned to moral character. In addition to teaching, modeling, and identifying the character traits when in action, students at Union Academy engage in character celebrations, community service, and other opportunities to showcase their good character. Teachers use curriculum, especially English and social studies, to weave characters or historical events/people into conversations to help dissect good and bad character in others.

Civic character, defined by Seider in conjunction with the work of Marvin Berkowitz, is “the knowledge, skills, virtues, and commitments necessary for engaged and responsible citizenship.” Each high school student at Union Academy commits to serve their school and the local community. This is a graduation requirement for our students. Students complete service learning in community-based organizations, as well as volunteer on and off-campus. Union Academy’s character traits of responsibility and initiative exemplify civic character.

In light of the above descriptions of character, how do students illuminate their character in the college application process? Students should hone in on aspects of their character and explicitly identify evidence of it in their lives. For example, in the Common App and other college applications, students must depict their involvement in and out of school, which will spotlight various aspects of their character. Students will also have opportunities to emphasize character in their college essays and resume. Teachers, too, will highlight students’ character attributes in their letters of recommendation. Specificity is key.

In addition to a student’s transcript that shows evidence of performance character, as a school counselor I advise students to thoughtfully and thoroughly delineate their extracurricular involvement. When applicable, students must describe leadership roles, detail their responsibilities as a student-athlete, define their involvement in marching band or theatre, expound on any family responsibilities, detail their employment, etc. Relative to moral character, teachers, coaches, and family members often get a first-hand view of how students treat others regardless of differences, including compassion, respect, and inclusion; however, students should identify any recognitions or awards in this area. Additionally, given the dominance of social media, students must be mindful in sustaining a healthy online presence and digital footprints colleges may access. As students hold positions in clubs or community service, they must highlight their civic character, including how they exercised initiative or demonstrated ingenuity in an area.

Students also have the opportunity to illuminate elements of their character in their college essays. For example, one of the current, short answer prompts for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is, “If you could change one thing about where you live, what would it be and why?” A response to this question speaks volumes about one’s character. Letters of recommendation by teachers and school counselors are another great means to highlight students’ character. Character can also be seen in a student’s resume, as some colleges allow applicants to upload of a full resume as well.­­

While character should be an essential criterion in the college admissions process, it is also essential to success in college and beyond. Navigating the college journey requires performance, moral, and civic character; however, performance character may often take center stage. Students’ choices surrounding moral and civic engagement also greatly influence the person they become. Our country and the world need college students who become agents of change for the greater good of others and our country. Amidst what our nation is facing in 2020, Holmes’ poignant words hit the mark, “Elevating character…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.”

Seider, Scott. Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students toward Success. Harvard Education Press, 2012.

Stay Connected!

Subscribe to our FREE weekly "Inspiring Character" newsletter that features new character development resources, useful tips, exciting interviews, and pluck-your-heartstring videos.


Let us inspire you!

Welcome to 'Inspiring Character'! 🎉 Thank you for subscribing. Get ready to explore uplifting stories and invaluable insights on character development in your inbox every week