Character Counts: What Are Colleges Looking For?

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What Character Traits Do Colleges Look For?

What do colleges look for besides grades when they read your application? They take into account more than your GPA and test scores. Your character and the personal qualities you can bring to a college are important, too. That's why you need to think about your goals, accomplishments, and personal values. Then, you can figure out how you can best express those in your applications.

Top Character Qualities Colleges Want

"What is it that makes you unique, and how will you contribute to the life of our campus?" That's the answer to what do colleges look for in essays, according to Earl Johnson of the University of Tulsa. University applicants who demonstrate the following qualities of a good college student have more to contribute to a school:

  • Leadership
  • Willingness to take risks
  • Initiative
  • Sense of social responsibility
  • Commitment to service
  • Special talents or abilities

Overall, colleges want a mix of students to create a rich campus community. They want the class valedictorians, says Marty O'Connell, executive director of Colleges That Change Lives. However, they also are looking for "students who are going to be involved in a lot of activities, and students who are musicians, and students who are athletes, and everything in between."

Your College Application Shows Your Personality Traits

So how do you show colleges what's special about you? The positive characteristics of college students are not easy to measure. Nonetheless, admission officers look at the items listed below for clues about what makes you unique.

Extracurricular activities: What you do outside the classroom reveals a lot about you. That’s why some applications ask for details about extracurricular activities. But remember, it's not the number of activities that counts. Then, what do admission officers look for? It's more about what you've learned and how you've grown from participating in these activities.

Summer jobs and activities: Your summer experiences provide insight into your character. Holding a summer job at a fast-food restaurant can build as much character as attending a prestigious summer learning program. Even staying at home to help out with babysitting or household chores like cooking for the family shows character. It's all about what you've gained, what you've learned and how you communicate that.

College essay: The college essay gives you the opportunity to show the admission officers who you are and how you will contribute to the college campus. What are admission officers looking for in a college essay? Creativity, self-awareness, and a good command of grammar top the list.

Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University, says that when admission officers read student essays, they ask themselves, "Would you like this person to be your roommate? Would you like to work on a group project with this person?" The essay can reveal the answers to these questions more than any test score can.

Letters of recommendation: Recommendation letters can tell a lot about the kind of person you are. A teacher who knows you well can give insight into your leadership ability or your collaborative approach to team projects. A school counselor or administrator can also offer valuable information about your service to the school community.


What characteristics are important to colleges?

Admissions officers are looking for academic excellence and character strength. When you look at a list of characteristics of college students, you probably recognize many of them in yourself. Colleges are looking for leaders who are compassionate and caring about others. They want innovators who are passionate about their pursuits and willing to take risks. So, what do admissions officers look for? They want students who have clear goals and can demonstrate that they can achieve them.

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What kind of students do colleges want?

Colleges are looking for students who will succeed academically, be involved, and use their talents to help others. When college admissions specialists review your application, they are asking themselves, "What qualities best describe this applicant?" It's your job to give them the clues they need to make a favorable decision. 

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How can I stand out to colleges?

The essay you write as part of the application process is one of your best chances to stand out. What do college admissions look for in an essay? Reveal your passions, talents, and character with a well-written essay. Ideally, your college essay will illustrate a project or situation that contributed to your personal growth. Many applicants find that taking the time to write a thoughtful essay also helps them figure out what to look for in a college they have been considering. 

When they review your application, admissions officials will also look closely at your extracurricular activities and what you did with your time during summer breaks. They are seeking evidence that your presence will positively impact the campus community. 

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