Bringing Educators Together to Embed Character in Admission Practice

Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series on character education and how character attributes are becoming a factor in secondary and higher education admission. The
first part covers independent schools’ trailblazing efforts. The second part discusses the evolution of the college admission system. This part analyzes concrete steps to bring admission reform.
An endemic condition in education is that we operate in separate professional worlds. Although the educational system is interlocking and mutually dependent, schools and colleges are scattered across a large nation, beholden to different boards of trustees, and competing with one another for attention, students, and dollars. This is not a malicious practice; rather, it reflects the complexity and scale of American education.
How, then, do we bring change to college admission? Specifically, how do we embed character attributes in this system? I see three strategies as imperative.

1. Build alliances across educational levels and among diverse constituencies.

There’s wide-ranging interest in elevating character attributes in our culture as best-selling books by Angela Duckworth and David Brooks make clear. In education, many colleges, schools, and professional organizations are grappling with how to embed character in admission, curriculum, and assessment. Moreover, crucial operational connections exist among college admission offices, testing organizations, and college placement offices. Given these interlocking constituencies, change must come by collective action.
Toward this end, last September the Institute on Character and Admission convened key actors in the admissions world with a common interest in elevating character attributes in their decision-making. Participants included admission deans from leading colleges, representatives from the testing organizations, leading reformers and researchers, and college counselors and secondary school leaders. We look forward to welcoming additional members when the institute meets in Boston in September.

2. Draw on the commitment and creativity of college admission leaders.

Involving the gatekeepers — college admission staff — is crucial to elevating character attributes in admission practice. In addition to the deans who joined the Institute on Character and Admission, the “Turning the Tide” project, inspired and led by Rick Weissbourd at Harvard, has recruited more than 170 college admission deans into the character movement.
In talking to admission deans, I have stumbled on an interesting paradox. Deans of the most selective colleges with the luxury of choosing among thousands of high-achieving students express genuine interest in using character-based attributes in an explicit, consistent, and valid way. Upon closer examination, this desire makes sense because character strengths can be an important discriminator among these many stars.
Now, it’s true that admission officers have always sought to identify students with exemplary character. The interview was one approach. Today, the interview is virtually extinct because research has demonstrated its unreliability and applicants are too numerous. However, smaller colleges and independent schools continue to use the interview method.
In general, colleges look at the student essay, recommendation letters, service activities, work experience, and new, more open-ended questions on standardized tests. Still, admission deans find these sources inadequate, and are working to develop character-oriented rubrics, definitions, and scoring scales to assess students.
Listen to David Holmes and Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admission at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, discuss Swarthmore’s approach to addressing character attributes in the admission process. (10 minutes)


3. Create effective strategies and tools.

Members of the Institute on Character and Admission agreed on 28 action steps to reshape the college admission practice. I highlight two prominent ones below.

I. Develop a rubric to capture the institution’s present practice. Formalize and codify the non-cognitive attributes that shape the school’s admission process.

Several colleges have developed rubrics that capture non-cognitive attributes in the review process, including:

Bucknell University in Pennsylvania — The admission team has drawn on the work of Angela Duckworth, William Sedlacek, and other researchers to develop a comprehensive rubric to guide review. Readers are trained to identify any of seven non-cognitive attributes. (See infographic.)

University of Denver — When admission staffers read applications, they are guided by two things: the definition of resilience (“the student has persevered through significant challenges”) and behavioral examples, such as “the student demonstrates great motivation and leadership in addressing obstacles, many of which are beyond his/her control.” A rating for resilience provides useful context about a student’s curriculum, grades, and standardized test scores. 

Wesleyan University in Connecticut — The admission staff interviews applicants and evaluates them based on a rubric that assesses personal qualities, such as leadership and persistence. The staff scores applicants on a 1-9 scale.

MIT — The admission team looks at essays and recommendations by teachers and counselors to identify non-cognitive attributes, such as persistence and adaptability, that predict academic success at MIT. Ratings of these attributes as well as narrative observations by staff inform the selection committee’s decisions.

II. Explore the feasibility of utilizing an assessment instrument in the admission process to discern non-cognitive/character strengths.
Some of the most advanced work in instrument design is occurring at the secondary level. As I described in my earlier blog, the Enrollment Management Association, in partnership with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), created the Character Skills Assessment for use in independent school admission. Because school leaders realized that character attributes are malleable and, especially among adolescents, in progressive stages of development, the assessment tool is now called the Character Skills Snapshot (CSS).
Working with the ETS research scientists and representatives from independent schools, the Enrollment Management team refined the assessment categories and the survey from 2013 to 2016. The eight categories are: intellectual curiosity, initiative, open-mindedness, resilience, responsibility, self-control, social awareness, and teamwork.
In May 2017, a planning group reviewed the survey for mission relevance, assessment format, and presentation of results. More than 5,000 students took part in the CSS’s pilot phase in 2016-2017. The CSS will be available to all independent schools in the upcoming academic year.
Administering the CSS in independent schools will provide insight into how schools explain its purpose to applicants and their parents, how they use the CSS to make admission decisions, and the tool’s perceived value in identifying prospective students with non-cognitive strengths. Whether colleges will take the leap of using an assessment instrument is unclear, but the CSS offers a first-rate model for potential use in higher education.
Listen to David Holmes chat with Meghan Brenneman, director of Character Assessment Programs at the Enrollment Management Association, about the formation and evolution of the Character Skills Snapshot tool. (12 minutes)

A Hopeful Future

This three-part series has focused on the emergence of the character movement, the complexities and pathologies of the college admission process, and avenues for reshaping college admission to embed character attributes in decision-making. Both the “Turning the Tide” project and the Institute on Character and Admission indicate that we are at the beginning of a revolution in how we admit young people to college and independent schools.
These developments hold promise that the doors of opportunity will widen to include youth of great potential who had been left out. Research shows that young people with resilience, grit, and ingenuity, no matter their backgrounds, are likely to succeed in school and work and make a positive difference over a lifetime. Our nation needs these young men and women; I’m encouraged that colleges and schools are developing new ways to find them.
David Holmes
David Holmes

David Holmes is cofounder and codirector of the Institute on Character and Admission. He was a professor and academic administrator at the University of Vermont and served as head of Suffield Academy (CT) and Community School (ID). He can be reached at [email protected]


Alden Blodget
6/29/2017 8:07:08 PM
It's easy to understand and even be attracted to the idea of increasing the lenses through which college admissions offices view applicants. Character is certainly important, but the hoopla around the idea of focusing on "embedding" character assessments as way to "reform" college admissions fills me with dread for several reasons:

• There seems to be considerable emphasis on certain vague character "attributes" that will predict which students are more likely to be successful--which seems to mean they will get good grades and be good citizens who are actively involved in their communities (in the "22 varsity sports and 100 activities" at Swarthmore, for example). We might want to spend more time on the notion of success, but for the moment, I'll take at face value the claim that character affects success. Success also affects character. Success can be a factor in developing some of the attributes that are supposed to predict success, particularly perseverance, resilience, leadership, self-regulation, creativity and others. And schools are not necessarily set up to foster success, let alone independence, passion, confidence, determination, motivation or "grit," the contemporary manifestation of the Puritan work ethic (which has become simply a rationale for making students feel guilty if they refuse to spend 8 or 10 hours a day joyously engaged in things that bore them but excite their teachers). So secondary teachers and colleges now want to assess character traits that schools are not designed to develop.
• As far back as I can remember, even to my days as a student, independent schools have proudly claimed that character-development has been central to their mission. All those Latin mottos about serving others. I haven't been impressed by the results. Zachary Stein, an educational philosopher whom I admire, has captured the failure best: "The recent economic crisis has involved the best graduates from our most prestigious schools. The key players were our greatest test takers, our academic over-achievers, and those who leveraged Ivy League success to land (unconscionably) high paying jobs in the financial sector. Their greed, incompetence, and narcissistic irreverence speak eloquently to the failure of our educational systems." Before we leap to assessing character development and embedding it in the college admissions process, perhaps we should do a more careful, rigorous, honest analysis of the sorts of characters the current school design actually creates. We have an educational system (public and private) that fails to achieve both its purported academic and character goals, and the last couple of decades of research into how people learn offers some interesting insights into possible design flaws.
• I also wonder about the seriousness with which colleges will actually treat character assessments. "Of course, we look at grades and rigor of curriculum," says Jim Bock, dean of admissions at Swarthmore. "That's first and foremost the most important, and obviously, sometimes standardized scores are important." And then, after "first and foremost," well . . .
• And how will they judge these attributes of character? According to the blog posting, judgment will be based on activities, recommendations and essays--and transcripts and course selection (grades and rigor of curriculum). Same old same old, with the addition of some "rubrics" for quantifying character attributes. It seems that ETS is also refining a multiple-choice assessment tool for character. Good lord. We know that essays and recommendations and transcripts and standardized tests can all be gamed, do we really think character assessments will not also be gamed? How many Ivy-aspirants will include recommendations from buildings and grounds staff next year?
• Jim Bock made an interesting and important comment in his interview: "These are adolescents growing, so we're looking for potential, as well as already strong character attributes." This contradictory observation suggests a need to study the developmental process of character development, in the same way that some researchers have begun to map the trajectory of conceptual understanding and skill development in many different domains. Rather than having ETS create another useless assessment, it might be more productive to involve Lectica ( in meaningful research into the various attributes of character (once those are clearly identified and defined). Right now, colleges and schools assess academic skills and knowledge without any research-based understanding of the sequences of development in each area. Why would we want to replicate this model as we seek to assess character?

At some point, we really need to zero-base the educational system and the assumptions about learning on which the system is built instead of forever adding more bling.

Jubilee Chang
6/29/2017 1:02:20 PM
Thank you, Doctor Holmes, for advocating the essentials of being a human besides the intellects. Our society is in need of these young people as such with full of admiarble characters.

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