Spark Admissions Blog

Applications, Essays, Where to Apply, Strategy, and More

What Personality Traits Do Colleges Want?

March 04, 2013
Written by Rachel B. Rubin

Recent research suggests that, in general, colleges seek applicants who have leadership, initiative, and grit (meaning applicants who are curious, determined, and hungry for challenges). 

But what portions of the application reveal those qualities? I have blogged in the past about the problems with standardized test scores, including that:

  1. Standardized tests are a poor indicator of how well students will perform in college.
  2. Students who have the money to take SAT/ACT prep courses traditionally do better on them, so it’s not “fair” for lower-income students to put too much weight on these scores.
  3. Many students who apply to an individual college have relatively similar SAT/ACT scores. This lack of score variation makes colleges more inclined to focus on other academic factors to judge academic performance.

Similarly, high school grade point averages may vary based on a host of factors, including one’s high school or particular teachers, whether a student faced adversity while in high school, etc. 

Thus, colleges are looking for more non-cognitive measures to identify and measure the qualities that they really desire because they want to see that students have an ability to transfer skills and knowledge to real-world situations.

Many non-profit organizations, as well as businesses, are currently attempting to develop measures of non-cognitive skills. For example, The College Board is developing a standardized way to measure 12 attributes, including perseverance, artistic appreciation, and ethics. Likewise, The Education Testing Service has developed an online system, entitled the Personal Potential Index, for evaluators to rate applicants on six categories, such as knowledge and creativity, communication skills, teamwork, and resilience.

But for now, until these non-cognitive assessments are more prolific, the best way that you can demonstrate these attributes most clearly is in your essays, interviews, and resumes.