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Character in College Admissions

Character in College Admissions
Sarah Honan

If you or someone you know has recently been through the college application process, chances are you have already heard the term “social-emotional learning” (SEL). Similar to “test-optional” and “demonstrated interest” - SEL has increasingly become part of the national lexicon around college admissions. But what exactly is SEL and why does it matter in the college process? 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social-emotional learning as follows: 

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. -- CASEL (2021)

Reading this description, I cannot think of a more salient list of skills required to be a successful college student. They are the answer to every important question the admissions committee will ask themselves after themost important question: can this student be academically successful at my institution? 

Those questions usually sound something like this: Will this student be able to recover from a disappointing test score or course grade? Will they persevere through challenges with roommates and adjusting to college life? Can they set a positive goal (i.e. graduation) and achieve it? Will they be a thoughtful member of our community? And will they make decisions that make us proud to call them a student and, eventually, an alum? These questions allgo back to social emotional-learning or, to put it more plainly, character. 

Whether you are one of the 36 colleges and universities that have signed on to the Character Collaborative or simply one of the 1,500+ colleges and universities in the U.S. that engage in holistic review, one thing holds true: character matters. This has become even more true during the COVID-19 pandemic with a majority of schools becoming test-optional. For these schools that practice holistic review - admissions decisions have never come down to just one thing, but now - in the absence of testing - even more time and attention can be paid to other aspects of the application: the essays, a student’s activities and responsibilities outside of school, and letters of recommendation. And what do all of these pieces and (hopefully) unique narratives demonstrate to an admissions committee? Character. Who are you? What do you care about? Who will you become on my campus? 

So, I'll conclude with something I used to tell my students when I worked at Fordham University: As an admissions person, it’s criticalfor me to see that you have done well as a student, but I also want to see that you have done good as a person - for your friends, your family, your community. And if I can see that you have done both, well now you've got my attention.