This character trait may help students stand out more than their GPA

At some schools, admissions officers read around 90 applications per day.

That's a lot of personal essays to read through. And when every submission deals with common (and sometimes trite) topics like success, failure, or lessons learned—the essays can run together, writes Jennifer Winward for the Washington Post.

But an authentic personal essay can help students stand out, writes Winward, an instructor at the University of California at San Diego and 18-year veteran of high school tutoring. These essays cover topics that make students light up or get teary when they talk about them out loud, she adds.

After hundreds of conversations with students over the past two decades, Winward has found one common theme among the most successful personal essays: kindness. Students who talk about moments of genuine kindness tend to write more authentic and compelling personal essays than those who write about other subjects, she argues.

Students discover something about themselves when they reflect on the situations where they feel kind, writes Winward. Kindness builds character—and colleges want students with character, she argues.

Admissions officer to students: Be nice—it just might get you into college

Yale University, for example, looks for applicants who show concern for others. We "want students who have achieved in and out of the classroom, but are also looking for things harder to quantify, [like] authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good," says Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale.

And at Dartmouth College, a recommendation letter from a custodian illustrated the applicant's kindness—and won over every admissions officer.

The custodian shared how the applicant was the only student in his large high school that knew the names of every member of the school's janitorial staff, explains Rebecca Sabky, a part-time admissions officer at Dartmouth College. He wrote about how the student always turned off the lights when leaving classrooms, tidied up after his classmates, and showed appreciation for the custodian's hard work.

The recommendation displayed the applicant's genuine kindness—something Sabky says is difficult to discern through test scores and "typically superfluous" letters of recommendation. Most recommendations from distinguished individuals (celebrities, school presidents) don't paint a picture of the applicants' intangible qualities. Instead, she says, "a sincere character evaluation from someone unexpected will mean more to [admissions officers] than any boilerplate recommendation" (Winward, Washington Post, 9/12).

What prospective Gen Z students want to know about colleges

Next in Today's Briefing

2 boss habits that hurt your relationship with employees

Next Briefing

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