How (and why) admissions officers are testing for personality

To boost student retention, more admissions leaders are turning to character attributes to better predict student success.

The renewed focus on personality traits is part of a larger push for holistic admissions, as applicants and enrollment leaders alike have grown frustrated with the limitations of standardized testing, James Paterson writes for Education Dive.

Holistic admissions emphasize evaluating an applicant as a complete person—including intangibles such as their personality traits and soft skills—rather than solely looking at test scores and transcripts.

But while more institutions are weighing personality traits during admissions, there is not yet data that proves certain attributes improve retention, Paterson notes. There is still debate on how character attributes can be measured, how much they should weigh, and what the ideal qualities are, he writes.

A focus on nonacademic qualities helps schools consider not only the number of students who enroll, but the quality of students who enroll, says Robert Massa, senior vice president for enrollment at Drew University.

And in his experience as chairman of Drew's retention committee, Massa says that students with "the right personal characteristics are more likely to stay in school."

Also see: Predict retention using application behaviors

But what constitutes the "right personal characteristics" differs depending on who you ask.

The Institute on Character in Admissions lists the ideal characteristics as adaptability, overcoming frustrations, dealing with setbacks, and relating to others, says Masa, a co-founder of the institute. Similarly, the National Education Association (NEA) considers traits, such as self-control, curiosity, grit, and conscientiousness as "critical to academic success" according to a 2015 NEA report.

Other studies contend that traits like conscientiousness and openness to experience can determine student success. 

But the one trait that seems to be on every admission officer's list is resilience, Paterson writes.

Students with these skills don't just succeed in the classroom; many employers believe these skills are necessary to succeed in the workplace, as well.

The Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project, for example, lists in-demand soft skills, such as resilience and persistence, as integral for degree completion and career success, Paterson writes.

As more employers partner with college to cultivate well-prepared employees, students' character qualities "will matter more going forward," says William Conley, vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell University.

Soft skills, hard skills, missing skills—More ideas for tackling the skills gap

How admissions officers are evaluating character traits

Ultimately, there's not a definitive list of traits every school is looking for in their students, says Kristina Wong Davis, vice provost for enrollment management at Purdue University. Admissions officers should take a holistic approach to determine whether an applicant would make a "good member in the academic, social and cultural environments on... campus," she explains.

Many schools are asking experts to evaluate the ways their admissions assessment material can better glean a student's non-academic qualities, Paterson writes.

The University of Denver, for example, has admissions officers identify evidence of resilience and use a rubric to assign a score, he notes.

And at Goucher College, applicants may submit a two-minute video in lieu of traditional materials, such as transcripts and test scores. Those who submit a video are asked to share how and why they would thrive at Goucher. The video is an opportunity for students to showcase their drive and creativity—especially if they feel traditional methods of evaluation fail to capture what they would bring to the campus community (Paterson, Education Dive, 2/12).

What Gen Z wants from the college search, in their own words


Next in Today's Briefing

Those tech jobs every student wants? You no longer need a degree to get one.

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague