Recently I organized and participated in a webinar entitled “Character Counts,” which drew viewers from as far away as South Korea. This program on character in the college process was in the planning stages before the coronavirus changed our lives. That’s because it is a timeless topic. Character – sometimes described as “what you do when you think no one is watching” – always matters. The absence of it in some egregious cases was highlighted a year ago in the Varsity Blues scandal. Parents, in some cases with their college-applicant children’s knowledge, falsified athletic recruiting documents to gain an unfair advantage. Fortunately, someone was watching – law enforcement – and dozens of cheaters were caught and punished.
In our present moment, character matters even more, because we all must put the health and well-being of others ahead of our individual desires to be free to do as we please. Coronavirus is literally a matter of life or death, where the college process only feels like that to people who misconstrue and overvalue the next educational step in the life of a young adult.
Character is also qualitative rather than quantitative: you can’t put a number on it. That stands in contrast to other attributes that colleges evaluate in the admissions process. There is always focus on what percentage of students graduate from your high school, what percentage attend four-year colleges; how many AP, IB, or Honors courses are offered; how many of them you have taken; how high your GPA is; how strong your test scores are. Numbers, so many numbers. Data points.
But data points don’t move into dorm rooms. College communities are made up of so much more. Qualitative characteristics such as grit, determination, resilience, flexibility, humor and empathy matter at least as much, if not more. In fact, because there are so many smart and hardworking students who have all the best possible numbers, admissions officers often make their choices on the human factors, not data points. In case of a tie on the numbers, character wins the offer.
The question becomes: How do admissions officers assess and make decisions about character?
Our panel for the Character Counts webinar included the chair of the Character Collaborative, Dr. Robert J. “Bob” Massa, a leader for decades in college admissions at Johns Hopkins, Dickinson, Lafayette and Drew. The mission of the organization he now leads is clear: “The Character Collaborative exists because character is fundamental to an engaged life, the fullest consideration of human potential, and a humane society. Guided by this belief, we believe admissions officers should recognize and assess character in the admission and signal its importance.” We are fortunate that Bob lives not far from Wardlaw+Hartridge, is generous with his time, and has become a familiar figure and a great help to our students and parents.
Also participating was Jonathan Williams, Assistant Vice President of Admissions at New York University – where more members of our Class of 2020 will enroll than any other institution. Having worked for years in non-profit educational, youth leadership and service programs, Mr. Williams also worked at his alma mater, Dartmouth, as well as at Penn, Oberlin, and as a college counselor at Episcopal, a great independent school near Philadelphia. He has thus seen how character plays out on “both sides of the desk” – in helping high school students apply, and in deciding which ones great colleges and universities will accept.
Our moderator was Arun Ponnusamy, Academic Director of Collegewise, a national independent educational consulting firm, with a local office in Fanwood that has been helpful to Wardlaw+Hartridge students in the area of preparation for standardized testing. Before taking on a leadership position with Collegewise, Mr. Ponnusamy worked in college admissions at the University of Chicago, California Institute of Technology and UCLA.
Having first been a college counselor in 1982 and thus helping young men who are now in their late 50’s through the admissions process, as well as many others in the decades since then, I had my own perspectives to contribute.
A main theme throughout the evening was that young people engaging the college process need first to come to know themselves better, then seek to understand the unique missions of very different colleges and universities in order to find a character-driven “match” between “who you are” and “what they value.” As I put it later in the program, the idea here is to help students develop and present a truly “coherent” application – one that “hangs together” – that is then “congruent” or “fits” with the qualitative character of the college community.
A final thought: Oscar Wilde said, “Be Yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” In the college process, students who can be their best selves can find communities of similar character.