The Newest Myth: Colleges Want These 5 Things in Your Students’ College Essay

I’ve been hosting free college essay classes for students for about 5 years, and generally, the questions are predictable:

What’s the best/worst topic? What do colleges want to read? What can I do to stand out?

This year, I’ve noticed a new type of question, and it’s troubling to me.

It’s a variation on this, what are the 5 characteristics colleges look for in application essays?

The answer: None.

Colleges are looking for the traits and characteristics that are important to your student, the traits your student wants them to know.

What does your student want to share with colleges that they don’t already know?

What makes them tick?

Who are they beyond the rest of the college application?

Are they funny? Shy? Resourceful? Creative? Industrious?

In a personal statement, any trait will do, as long as it’s genuine.

I understand how this question about 5 characteristics made its way to my free class. I am sure you do, too.

Still, it’s backward, out of context, and keeps showing up in blogs, podcasts, and professional websites. In this test-optional landscape, there’s a growing concern that character should be elevated in holistic admissions practices.

Is that a good idea? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t really know.

But I do know that telling students to pick a trait from someone else’s list is wrong.

Admissions teams read essays to add context to the application package. They want to know what traits and characteristics students have. THAT cannot be manufactured.

A student who does not think of herself as a leader is going to have trouble writing about being a leader if she picks it from a list of “ideal” traits. 

A student who wants to show colleges their creative side will likely have a hard time writing about resilience if they are told to pick it from a list of traits colleges want to read about in an essay.

Many things are changing in the admissions world, but college admissions officers are still looking for the same thing they’ve always looked for in any personal statement: reflection and insight.

They want to know who the applicant is; not who someone else tells them they ought to be.

Our job, and yours, is to help students write application essays that colleges will want to read to help them make a positive impression inside the admissions office. They can’t do that if they manufacture traits.

We share tips for helping our students pick their best traits and characteristics in our book for counselors. Download a free copy of our book and find other free resources here.

 Kim Lifton, of Farmington Hills, MI, is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays, so students can stand out and tell their stories. Kim leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short answer essays and supplements. Kim is also an executive board member of Michigan ACAC.