I spend a great deal of time in consultation sessions with new families dispelling myths about what top colleges look for in applicants.1 Most parents come to our initial meeting thinking their child needs to be well-rounded, hardworking, and a perfect 4.0 student (a retro model of college planning belonging to the twentieth century).
I then explain that top colleges look for students who are instead well-defined and simply human. As Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons states about the Harvard selection process, “One thing we always want is humanists.”2
Why is it so important for a student to show they’re a humanist to an elite college? For starters, grades and test scores have come to matter less and less in competitive admissions.3 Once your child’s application is sorted with applications of the same academic caliber (similar course load, GPA, SAT/ACT score), admissions readers seek other marks of distinction.
Beyond grades, test scores, and activities, colleges look out for who your child is as a person. They want to know how your teen behaves in social settings, makes decisions, handles difficult situations, grows from setbacks, and interprets the world around them. Admissions officers see it as their mission to create a well-rounded class (rather than a disconnected collection of well-rounded students). They view this class as a community and seek students they think will contribute to it.
Yes, colleges focus on what applicants are like as people – as people who in one way or another care about humanity. So how can a student show this quality?
On the basis of my work assisting teens build competitive profiles for top college admissions over the last decade, I’ve determined some key personality traits that together add up to being a “humanist.” At Blue Stars, we call them the 6Cs and Big D. I know it sounds goofy, but this mini system of categorization will help you and your teen organize yourselves as your teen carves a unique college planning path.
1) Character: Since they are creating a living-learning community when selecting applicants, colleges seek students with a generous, ethical character. How can teens show their generous character? One of our students volunteered steadily for the same homeless shelter all four years of high school doing boring tasks that needed to get done. One student changed her friend group in the middle of tenth grade because of their partying. One became a social justice activist, and another taught piano to a child on the autism spectrum. Generosity shows up, too, in the student who makes all gifts by hand. The possibilities are endless, and everyone has their own unique way of showing their ethical character.
2) Collaboration: Because the modern work world is all about collaborating in teams, colleges want to know if an applicant “plays well with others.” While they are interested in the academic skills teens bring, colleges also want to know how applicants relate to their peers in a professional setting. You might think colleges look for leadership skills. They do. But they’re most interested in leaders who bring people together.
3) Creativity: Colleges like students who see things in a new way. This does not mean that your child needs to be an artsy student. It means starting something that hasn’t been done before. Think about creativity in terms of “taking initiative.” One of my favorite student initiatives involved collecting and distributing medical equipment to free clinics close to where she lives. That student was admitted to Stanford, Columbia, and UC Berkeley! Another student started a school club devoted to diversity and radical acceptance. Her admissions reader at Yale wrote a personal note: “Your passion for social justice inspires me.” There’s also the student who likes to experiment in the family kitchen. It all counts as creativity and initiative! I like to call creativity “problem-solving par excellence.” The more you help your teen foster a creative, problem-solving mindset, the more your teen will develop into a self-reliant adult. Top colleges will pick up on this vibe and appreciate it.
4) Challenge: While it may not always feel good in the moment, some of your child’s greatest challenges might turn out to be admissions strengths! More than anything, colleges want to know how your child has changed or grown during their high school years. One of my favorite examples in this category is the story of the student who wrote her Common Application essay on losing a summer band camp competition as her team’s captain. She was crushed and humiliated. But she learned valuable lessons about her leadership from the setback and became a stronger person as a result. She was also accepted to Stanford!
5) Curiosity: Colleges care about where students’ minds roam, and how they roam (most especially on their own time, outside the classroom or organized extracurriculars). They consider reading books, viewing informational videos, listening to podcasts, querying on Reddit, or tinkering with an Arduino in the garage vital for personal development. Does your child take things at face value, or does he or she dig deeper and investigate independently? I’ve met so many students who proclaim their love of artificial intelligence or virtual reality but have nothing to say about how these technologies can impact society, good and bad. These students experience difficulty with interviews and often do not get into their dream schools.
6) Commitment: It’s one thing to say you’re interested in artificial intelligence, animal conservation, or finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. It’s another to show your interest through active involvement over time. Take the Berkeley grad who, while still in high school, ran an art studio for kids on weekends in her garage, or the Arizona State Honors admit who interned at a physical therapy office, or the STEM student who organized a team for a local tech challenge: each student was able to prove their dedication through sustained, concrete activity.
7) And, the Big D for Diversity! What kinds of experiences does your child have with people who differ in terms of socioeconomic status, cultural experience, regional background, or religious influence? Is your child someone who creates or works within groups of people from diverse backgrounds? Is he or she a bridge builder? In our multicultural, globally interconnected society, colleges want to see applicants who are comfortable with personal or cultural difference and can move among varying social groups in a harmonious way.
Conclusion and Next Steps
First, congratulations on getting this far! It is a lot to take in. Planning for a spot at a top college is a multidimensional endeavor, and it can feel hard, even agonizing at times. Hopefully, this new framework provides a fresh approach for setting personal foundations.
Second, this new framework can also help your child choose future activities. Will a certain activity bring out one (or some) of these qualities? If yes, then it might be a good choice. Even better, the 7 Key Personality Traits can help your child decide between activities if there isn’t time for all of them. Soccer or bio research? Extra class or volunteer? Once you match these traits with activities, the decision might be more obvious than you think!
And finally, the 6Cs and Big D can help all teens, not just those applying to the country’s most elite schools. Any teen who develops into a “humanist” throughout high school is sure to dazzle, no matter one’s GPA, SAT score, or intended major. This form of teen personal development is like icing on the cake and often leads to sweet admissions outcomes such as merit aid or entry into an honors program. That’s because it shows that beyond academic scores and resume items is a real person, not just an achievement machine.
Since admissions officers truly want to get to know teens in their college applications, one of the best things we can all do for them is help them get to know themselves. Hopefully, the 6Cs and Big D can help lead the way. To assist further, we’ve created a worksheet you can use with your teen to identify which traits he or she already exhibits and which could use some attention. We find that providing frameworks for teen self-awareness can make a big difference in strategic planning for college. We hope you give it a try!
1For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I define a top college as one that falls into the first 50 national universities or liberal arts colleges as listed in US News College Rankings and Data. Doing so does not mean I endorse these rankings. It’s a shorthand way to define a class of schools with particularly rigorous admissions expectations.
2Anemona Hartocollis, “Harvard’s Admissions Process, Once Secret, Is Unveiled in Affirmative Action Trial,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/us/harvard-admissions-affirmative-action.html, (October 19, 2018).
3Jeff Selingo, “The Two Most Important College-Admissions Criteria Now Mean Less,” https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/05/college-admissions-gpa-sat-act/561167/, (May 25, 2018).