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 students to show that 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 7Cs. 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.
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 Core 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 7Cs 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 7Cs 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!