Two Key Qualities College Admissions Officers Want to See in Your Common App Essay

In this high-stakes, hyper-competitive academic climate, students often think that colleges only value their academic successes and achievements. This only makes sense. Throughout your school career, you’ve been encouraged to value achievement metrics—test scores–and performance results. And you’ve worked diligently to secure the best grades and test scores possible.

Besides top test scores, colleges want to see evidence of your empathy and passion.

Intellectual engagement is important, and admissions officers are looking for top intellectual talent. We want the best and the brightest. But during the past few years, college admissions officers have learned two things that effect the way your application packet is assessed.

First, test scores don’t always predict who will succeed in college and who won’t. Seriously? Seriously. Even though most colleges require you to submit SAT or ACT scores with your application, they are hardly the best indicators of your ability to thrive in college. Why? While these tests measure your raw intelligence, your core competency in reading and math, they are unable to measure less quantifiable skills and assets that you need to succeed in college such as how you will respond to assignments that require extended effort and concentration, how capable you are of independent thinking, and how well you get along with others.

But if not my SAT/ACT scores, what does show college admissions officers that I will succeed in college? The answer may surprise you. Recent research indicates that personality traits—not raw intelligence—are better, more accurate predictors of college success. That’s right. Who you are, the traits and qualities that define you, are often more predictive of college (and lifetime!) success than any combination of test scores. In fact, according to James Heckman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago who has spent his career studying education and life outcomes, college admissions officers would be better able to secure successful college students by delving more deeply into students’ attributes and high school grades. Research conducted by John Eric Humphries, a Yale University economist who worked on the study with Heckman and co-authored (with Heckman and Tim Kautz, researcher at Mathematica Policy Research) The Myth of Achievement Tests: The GED and the Role of Character in American Life also indicates that life skills including conscientiousness, perseverance, sociability, curiosity, time management skills, and executive functioning skills (those skills that help you gather and structure information, pay attention, plan and organize, and remember details) are better predictors of college success than standardized tests.

In light of this research, college admissions officers have begun to shift the way they assess applicants, and are now scrutinizing students’ applications for evidence of personal attributes and skills associated with college success. In other words, as noted in a recent report released by Making Care Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, admissions officers are becoming more focused on the quality of different kinds of student achievement, not just quantity of academic achievements. As Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions and Interim Executive Director of Student Financial Service at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains, “We don’t want students who do things just because they think they have to in order to get into college.” This new focus on personal traits and qualities has been underscored by Jeremiah Quinlan, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University: “[W]e want students who have achieved in…the classroom, but we are also looking for things that are harder to quantify, [such as] authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good.”

So what does this all mean in terms of you, the college applicant about to sit down to write your common app essay? College admissions officers certainly want to see all the evidence you can provide of your school smarts. We want to see that you have challenged yourself intellectually, and that you have succeeded in those challenges. But we also want to see evidence of your “softer” skills, those skills and attributes that help you manage your emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel sympathy for others, and make responsible decisions. These are the kinds of skills that you more often learned outside of school, at home and in your family. The fancy term for these skills is socio-emotional learning or SEL, and how to admit students with a good deal of SEL is one of the biggest concerns in admissions today. Of this core group of skills, the two most sought after skills admissions officers want to see evidence of are empathy and passion. These are the two key qualities college admissions officers want to represented in your common app essay.

Now at first blush, neither of these qualities probably strikes you as relevant to your ability to learn at a college level or to your potential for academic success. But they are! Here’s how it breaks down:


What is empathy? In the broadest sense, empathy is the ability to understand and share the experiences of others. It’s that ability you have to recognize and respond to another’s emotional situation despite differences in background or belief. Think of empathy as a kind of interpersonal intelligence; it’s the “capacity [you have] to understand the intentions, motivations, and desires of other people,” explains Howard Gardner, the renowned Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University. Or, as Tyler Colesante, a researcher at the University of Toronto writes, empathy is “the intrapersonal realization of another’s plight that illuminates the potential consequences of one’s own actions on the lives of others.”

Why is empathy so valued by college admissions officers? Many reasons, including some that might surprise you.

First, we know that intelligence is not just developed by reading textbooks.  In fact, neuroscientific research indicates that the ability to empathize is positively correlated to improvements in intelligence, successful learning and memory formation, and advancements in school performance. That’s right. Your ability to empathize actually enhances your ability to learn and helps you develop knowledge and skills vital to succeeding in college and in life.

Second, empathy is associated with other attributes that promote success in school and life including curiosity, awareness, sensitivity, respect, clear thinking, deep learning, the ability to collaborate and work on a team, and engagement with the world. It is the quality that has been identified as “the emotional sustenance for outstanding human performance,” in school and out.

Third, we know that students learn best when they have positive relationships with those around them, and we know that students with high empathy quotients or EQs are more likely to make classroom contributions that foster the development of positive classroom cultures. Given the increasing diversity of students attending American colleges today, evidence of your EQ is especially important.

Fourth, we know that empathic students tend to foster deep relationships with others, in school and out, and that these relationships have the potential to strengthen the college community and the community beyond college. In other words, in our increasingly diverse and interconnected world, your EQ will help you become a successful and responsible member of the college community and a citizen of the world.

Finally, recent research at the Center for Creative Leadership and the Harvard Business School found that empathy is an essential leadership quality. In others words, those students with high EQs are more likely to be able to successfully collaborate with others, cross organizational and cultural boundaries, and create shared directions between social groups with different histories, perspectives, values, and cultures, in college and in the world beyond. Simply put: Students with high EQs tend to be good team players, bridge builders, and collaborators, and they often become great leaders.


What does passion mean?  The word passion describes a strong and powerful feeling of enthusiasm for something or about doing something. Your passion can be anything that challenges you, intrigues you, and motivates you. It’s that experience that engages you so much that you’re willing to give up your free time to pursue it, the burning idea or problem or wrong you want to right that sometimes keeps you awake at night.

Passions aren’t hobbies. When you do something occasionally, you call it a hobby. But if you feel compelled by your interest and emotionally invested in it, you call it a passion. It’s something you make a commitment to do.

Why are college admissions officers so interested in your passion? Because passion is associated with drive, enthusiasm, energy, motivation, discipline, self-education, and ambition. Passions fuel commitments; passions push us to learn more, help us set goals. Passions focus us, and they often become purposes. Because you usually invest time reading about and studying your passion, your passion shows that you are capable of taking initiative and thinking independently. Most important, passions often reveal your convictions and your beliefs. They are the experiences that give our lives a sense of purpose and meaning.

When writing your common app essay, the importance of showing evidence of your passion cannot be overstated. Here’s a story Nelson Urena, a former undergraduate admissions officer at Cornell University, tells: He had advised a student with near-perfect SAT scores and a GPA that placed him among the top five percent in his high school to apply to all the most competitive colleges on his list. However, the student was only offered a spot on the waitlists at his top-tier universities. After this disappointment, Urena asked a former colleague who worked as an admissions officer at one of the universities where the student had been waitlisted if she knew why the student hadn’t been admitted. She explained that though the student had fared well in terms of his numbers (standardized test scores, GPA, class rank), he had lacked evidence of a driving passion, a project that demonstrated independent skill and interest. All the admitted students had.

In other words, as Schmill explains, “We want students … who pursue their interests with energy and enthusiasm, and who work cooperatively with others, all of which will help them be successful in and after college.” Diane Anci, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admission & Financial Aid at Kenyon College, puts it more succinctly: “[We’re looking for students] who emphasiz[e] depth of commitment over breadth of resume.”

Now I know what you’re asking. What if you haven’t engaged in service in a faraway land or committed yourself to the independent study of one subject over an extended period of time?

Don’t Panic

You are more than you think you are! Everyone has the capacity to empathize and has shown empathy, and everyone has some interest that compels her or him more than others. You just need to know how to find it!

Five ways to uncover evidence of your empathy:

1. Think about the stories you tell others about yourself. What do they say about you that’s not represented in your transcript? More often than not, these stories reveal many of your positive qualities, including your empathy. 

2. Think about the stories your families tell over and over. Do they reveal anything about a family history of empathy? 

3. Think about people you admire. Many will be people who have made meaningful contributions to others. Many will have engaged in community service with and for the public good. What do you see in yourself that is represented in that person?

4. Reflect on the service or contributions of previous generations. Think about how your life might be built on similar contributions.

5. Most important, think small. Empathy can take many forms and is often shown in the activities you engage in everyday such as consistent, demanding, deep family contributions including caring for siblings or taking on major household responsibilities.More often than not, these stories reveal many of your positive qualities, including your empathy. 

Five ways to uncover evidence of your passion:

1. The American Heritage dictionary defines passion as something for which you have “boundless energy.” Think of things you do that you don’t get tired of doing, and think about how that activity or experience might have fueled your intentions and strategies for creating change.

2. Your passion might have surfaced early in life. Many of our deep interests and commitments emerge when we’re young, possibly through music or math or an experience in nature. When thinking about your common app essay, think back to your childhood and think about how old interests might have transformed into present passions. 

3. Passions are often found in more general traits that have developed over time. For example, creativity and competence are passions that develop over time through practice and experience. See if you can identify or define your passion (or passions!) by thinking about skills that you’ve developed over time that have led you to feel more empowered in that area, and more committed to exploring.

4. Think about someone in your life or in history whose life and work inspires and excites you. Has that person already helped you discover and explore your passion?

5. Remember, your passion doesn’t have to be something “big.” Think about the type of books that you love to read, experiences that you create for yourself, what you do or have done that you are most proud of, and even about the kinds of conversations that exhilarate you. One of them is sure to expose your passion.

Above all else, when writing your common app essay, remember that you want to show evidence of engagement in some meaningful, transformative, contributive experience. And you want to represent your willingness to immerse yourself in that experience and the emotional and ethical awareness the experience generates for you. In other words, think of the quality of your engagement, not the quantity. Keep in mind that our goal is to graduate successful citizens, empathic and passionate students who will succeed in and support a collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and geographically distributed learning network.

Now go and show them what you’ve got! Need help? Call me. I’m always ready to help you!


About The Author
Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.