GCDS News - Magazine

College Admissions, Character Reads Through on an Application

By Andy Ramirez, Director of College Counseling

GCDS students frequently hear me wax poetic about my experiences on the “other side of the desk.” My time in college admissions was not only personally fulfilling, it also shaped my understanding of the college application landscape in ways that continue to inform every aspect of my work as a college counselor. And on the surface, it makes sense. In the 10 or so years I spent in the Bowdoin and Princeton admission offices, I interacted with countless prospective high school students and their families, read thousands of essays, and poured over a mind-numbing number of recommendation letters and transcripts belonging to hopeful applicants.

I do not miss the sleepless nights reading files, but I do miss the bunker-like environment of “committee.” During this time, which took place after all applications were reviewed by admission officers in November and throughout the months of February and March, my colleagues and I would huddle around a table for 12-hour days as we meticulously took on the arduous task of crafting the incoming class of students. The days were long, we rotated takeout duties (Bankok Thai in Portland, Maine, for me, every time) and, as colleagues, we debated each other long into the evening. Each day of committee, an admission officer would present applicants from his or her assigned territory while the rest of us would listen intently before collectively deciding which students to admit, defer, waitlist, or deny. As we shifted from the academic to the extracurricular sections of a student’s profile, it always amazed me how quickly we would summarize the facts and move on. The personal qualities conversation that concluded each case was always the longest part of each discussion.

It wasn’t a student’s academic and extracurricular activities that drove an admission decision. Sure, these were important, but given that the vast majority of our applicants were qualified, it was personal qualities such as kindness, empathy, self-awareness, cultural fluency, and grit that helped paint the picture we were searching for. When these personal traits were the central focus of a student’s application, they revealed themselves in numerous ways; the student’s voice in personal essays and the tone in teacher recommendations were resonant. The impression left in personal interviews was memorable. These personal characteristics would help us answer vital questions such as: “Will this student be a good classmate here?” “Will he or she be a supportive and open-minded roommate?” More often than not, this part of the discussion was the deciding factor in a debate in that committee room.

If there is one thing that continues to ring true each year, it is how frequently students overestimate the importance of their academic and extracurricular profile in this process. Character reads through on an application: how you interact with a challenging teacher, how you help a classmate, how you greet someone directing traffic at the school, how you support your siblings, all read through on an application. And more importantly, they help all of us build a great GCDS community in the meantime.