The Five Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants

In a previous post, we distilled the purpose of the college application into a single phrase: to prove the student will be successful in college and beyond. 

Now, we’ll focus on how students can prove they’ll be successful. The only way to prove future success is through the students’ experiences to date. These experiences must relate to one or more of the five traits colleges look for in applicants: drive, intellectual curiosity, initiative, contribution, and diversity of experiences.

Some colleges may value more than five traits. Some colleges may value certain traits more than others. Some colleges may call our five traits different things – e.g., drive can be grit or perseverance. Regardless, the five traits we’ve identified provide a framework and universal language we can use to help students understand which experiences they should focus on in their applications. Without understanding the five traits, most applicants struggle to write about their experiences that prove they’ll be successful in college and beyond. Let’s take a look at each of the five traits and why colleges find students with these traits to be compelling.

  1. Drive. Driven students push themselves to succeed no matter the odds. Driven students go through difficult and challenging situations and come out a better person. Driven students take action to make their situation or the situation of others better. Students who are driven are more likely to be successful in college and beyond because they’ll persevere through any challenges they encounter.
  1. Intellectual Curiosity. Intellectually curious students spend their free time learning just for the fun of it. Intellectually curious students dive deep into topics and subjects in which they’re interested. They routinely seek knowledge and often engage with others in the pursuit of understanding. Students who are intellectually curious are more likely to do well in their classes, and they’re likely to succeed in whatever they choose to do in the future.
  1. Initiative. Initiative students are entrepreneurial and not willing to accept the status quo. They’re always thinking of and executing on ways to improve whatever group or organization they are a part of. Colleges love students who take the initiative because they’ll be more likely to improve the college’s community, become leaders, and make everything they touch better.
  1. Contribution. Contributing students make any group they’re a part of better as a result of their involvement and actions. Groups can be organizations, activities, a school, a community, or even peer groups. Colleges love contributors because they greatly improve the college’s community and will add value to any group of people they’re a part of in the future.
  1. Diversity of experiences. Colleges are trying to build a well-rounded class made up of students with different life experiences, different interests, and different ways of thinking about the world. Diversity adds unique perspectives to the student body and enables a college community to thrive while adding value to one another. Additionally, diverse students will go do a variety of things after they graduate, enabling the college to fulfill its mission of having a positive impact across many parts of the economy, society, and the world.

I often find students struggle to identify the traits they possess because their actions are “normal” to them but not normal to a typical applicant. Students who are intellectually curious often learn for fun and don’t think to write about it in their applications. Students who take the initiative or are contributors often think nothing of their actions and don’t write about these experiences in their applications. 

Working with thousands of students, my team and I have found that merely understanding the five traits helps students identify compelling experiences. It may be difficult and unnecessary to focus on all five traits within an application. Instead, students should focus on reinforcing two to three of their strengths. Brainstorming questions can be used to help students identify compelling experiences related to their traits. Effective brainstorming questions often need to reframe how a student thinks about themselves and their experiences. For example, a great question is – “Imagine a group of people you spend a lot of time with; then, imagine you were never part of the group; how would it have been different?”

Once a student identifies a compelling set of experiences related to the five traits, they can match these experiences to a college application’s different parts to ensure they’re sharing a full picture of what makes them compelling. After determining what to write about, the student will need to develop an outline before writing. Time spent before writing the draft will save students hours of time and result in better essays. We’ll cover how to structure an admissions essay in a future post.

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