This fall, in what will surely be a landmark court case in college admissions, Harvard University is being sued by Students for Fair Admissions, a group representing students who allege that the university purposely discriminates against Asian-Americans during the admissions process.
The court case has gained wide attention. Guidance counselors, admissions hopefuls, and, most significantly, other colleges around the nation are closely following this case, which gives unprecedented access to the decision-making process that occurs behind the closed doors of the Harvard admissions office.
In fact, the extraordinary testimonies and statistical evidence demonstrate what industry experts have long suspected: while Asian-Americans have the grades, the scores, and the extracurriculars, they lose out in the subjective and unquantifiable area of “personal qualities.”
While testimony has gone back and forth on whether Harvard purposely uses an applicant’s “personal qualities” as a kind of racial profiling, the fact remains that these qualities have been exposed for what they are: one of the most subjective and valuable tools at the admissions officer’s disposal.
This is an important lesson, not just for the Asian-American applicant, but for any admissions hopeful. Consider this: colleges and universities have always found the means to make their campuses look a certain way. Whatever the outcome of this particular trial, or even of the Supreme Court case that is sure to follow, colleges and universities will find a way to maintain campus diversity.
And for the admission’s officer, this work-around will come in the form of personal qualities, because that is the area most subject to his or her discretion and interpretation. Qualities such as likeability, leadership, courage, wide respectability, humor, grit, and kindness–to name a few.
Student Character & Quality
As early as 2001, FLEX College Prep has been coaching students on the importance of demonstrating strong personal qualities.
On one hand, student character should be pursued for its own sake. On the other hand, FLEX has long known that a student’s character has tremendous value in a college admissions process that has begun to trend away from grades and personal achievement alone–even before this latest trial. In fact, over the past ten years, this trend can be traced beyond the college admissions arena to the culture at large.
We have seen unethical behavior by large corporations such as Enron, AIG, and Lehman Brothers. Even on college campuses we have seen students lodging complaints against other students, universities settling suits, and university leadership stepping down over the mishandling of allegations.
Is it any surprise, then, that admissions offices have begun to look among the tens of thousands of gifted, academically qualified, high-achieving students, for those applicants who have demonstrated the most humanistic qualities?
After all, students are future ambassadors of their respective alma maters.
Kindness: a Surprising Quality Trait
In fact, one of the hottest personal qualities in recent years has become the relatively humble quality trait of “kindness.”
This is a particularly important quality for those applicants that cultivate a more individualistic profile and whose achievements tend to be impressive but self-centered. This is not to say that students should not pursue individual excellence. But, as FLEX counselors routinely advise, this excellence should always be balanced by evidence of other-minded behavior.
For example, a student might be better served using a few hours a week developing a micro-funding campaign than in preparing for another math competition. Or consider the example of a student who was unanimously voted into Dartmouth College after sending in a letter of recommendation from the school janitor.
The janitor wrote that he was touched by the student’s initiative in tidying up after others and knowing the names of all the cleaning staff. The former admissions director of Dartmouth writes about that student,
“Over 15 years and 30,000 applications in my admissions career, I had never seen a recommendation from a school custodian. [That letter] gave us a window onto a student’s life in the moments when nothing ‘counted.’”
Character is Still Critical
It remains to be said that while the outcome of the case against Harvard is still pending, the average applicant will not see significant relief in the admissions process.
At this level of competition, the need to distinguish yourself from your high-achieving peers remains more critical than ever. This distinction will not come through ever greater academic or extracurricular accomplishment, but in the area of student character.
Certainly, qualities such as kindness, decency, and compassion should not be cultivated simply as a means to get into a particular school. However, high school students would be well served to develop these aspects of their characters with as much care and devotion as they tend to their resumes.
Contact your local FLEX office for questions or assistance understanding the impact of the Harvard lawsuit.
Danny is the CEO of FLEX College Prep. Danny’s core focus is on helping young people get the best advice, and be the best students they can be. His team of professionals are also personal coaches, and great people, driven by the same passion for helping people.