With all the controversy about what it takes to get admitted to college these days, sometimes the qualities that really matter are overlooked. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important to the colleges; it just means they can get lost when we get caught up with rankings, application totals, test scores, and the number of valedictorians in an incoming freshmen class. It is so easy to get attached to concrete accolades, while other things, like kindness, get lost. There is no perfect metric for measuring a student’s kindness. But there are a number of ways colleges factor in kindness. And, we’re fortunate that today even more colleges are doing this through a process called holistic admissions.
Take the University of California-Berkeley as an example. Despite receiving almost 80,000 applications last year, they adopted a policy this year where applicants can submit a letter of recommendation from someone who knows them well. Berkeley is doing what most selective institutions do: they are evaluating the whole student. That’s holistic admissions in a nutshell. Colleges that practice holistic admissions look at objective criteria like GPAs and test scores, subjective criteria like involvement and essays, and personal commentary like letters of recommendation from individuals who see the student for who they are.
Kindness can come through in a student’s involvement or sometimes even in their essay. But the most effective way is through a powerful letter of recommendation. This letter can come from the guidance counselor at the high school, a teacher, or someone in the community who knows the student well. Many believe that a letter doesn’t really matter.
Critics say that good kids aren’t rewarded in college admissions.
I say they’re wrong.
When I was an admissions officer, I read hundreds of thousands of letters of recommendation. As a high school college counselor, I have written more letters than I can remember. I have the privilege of seeing the entire application of a student. What moves an admissions officer to advocate for a student has so much to do with the student’s personal qualities, or PQs, rather than their IQ. It doesn’t matter if the recommender lists how many A’s the student received—that’s already on the transcript. What matters in those letters is getting an admissions officer to fully realize what makes that student special, distinctive, and kind.
A couple of nights ago, I stayed late at school to watch the last soccer game of the regular season. I had a number of seniors who were playing, and I wanted one last glimpse of them as I sent off their transcripts and letters of recommendation. One of my seniors is a dominating force in the classroom and on the soccer field. She is applying to a college that practices holistic admissions—so her PQs will be just as important as her IQ.
As the wind picked up and the sun started to fade, her star emerged. But it wasn’t because she was scoring goals. It was because she was the embodiment of kindness. She was giving generously to her teammates at a time when most of us would be hogging the ball. It was the last regular season game she would play for her high school, yet she was the one passing the ball to the younger girls. She was the one setting up plays so others could shine. As the sun set on her high school career she channeled a selflessness that makes great players transcendent and elite. It was beautiful to watch because it reminded me that kindness matters, and it matters more than ever on college campuses. Being selfless is rare. It should be celebrated and shared by the people who see it.
For students, you don’t have to do anything differently. Just be yourself. Be the individual you want to be, and the person your parents and role models expect you to be. And, those adults who are quietly observing you from afar will go to bat for you through a simple letter of recommendation. In the end, writing is the biggest form of flattery. If you don’t have a guidance counselor at your high school, befriend the principal. If your academic teachers don’t understand you, find someone who does. These are the individuals who will write for you. These are the individuals who will reveal the kind kid in this sometimes big, bad world we all live in.
Kind, good kids should finish first in the college process and in life. They should be the ones we fight for, and the ones colleges admit if everything else is strong. Colleges need them in their dorms, classrooms, teams, and future alumni networks. PQs are underrated at times. But the colleges that admit human beings instead of GPAs and test scores are looking for those PQs. Kindness is the most powerful and transformational PQ of them all.