by Mark H. Sklarow, Chief Executive Officer, Independent Educational Consultants Association

Let’s assume you were an admission director for a day. One spot remains for the class of 2019 with two folders in front of you. Candidate A is a brilliant young woman, with a 4.0 GPA which she achieved without breaking a sweat. In fact, she cruised through high school, never once experiencing a downturn personally or academically. Candidate B achieved a GPA a bit lower, let’s say a 3.6. But she did it faced with challenges: personal, familial, and academic. She wasn’t scared off by tough classes and succeeded with grit, determination, and a healthy dose of persistence.

Who do you choose? A or B. Who is most likely to succeed: students with clear intellectual ability or those who demonstrate non-cognitive skills? The answer may not be so clear. Those who believe in the importance of “character” in admission like to say that these skills are what separate champions from semi-finalists. That a student with superior intellect may indeed cruise…until something goes wrong and then may lack the internal and emotional skills to bounce back from a setback.

I recently joined the Board of a national organization that seeks to restore character to the admission decision. The Board is made up of leaders in college and university admission, independent schools, and leading national organizations. It is led by Robert Massa, senior VP for Enrollment & Institutional Planning at Drew University and David Holmes, director of Strategic Initiatives, at the Community School.

More than encouraging the consideration of character strengths, the newly renamed “Character Collaborative” believes that instruments may be available to assist the admission office in measuring these non-cognitive intelligences, as author and researcher Daniel Goleman calls them. Among these skills valuable for school and life success: persistence, empathy, teamwork, cooperation, curiosity, self-control, purpose, grit, and zest.

For years, such demonstration of character strengths came through the application process via the essay, an interview, and recommendations. More recently, a review of an applicant’s social media life may get reviewed. But a new effort, spearheaded at the secondary level for independent school applicants, is showing promise. The so-called character snapshot, gained through an online survey completed by students, is being examined for validity. The early indications, with a pilot run of some 16,000 applicants in 2018, is that it is valid. It will be exciting to see the results from the Enrollment Management Association, whose Executive Director, Heather Hoerle sits on the Board of the Character Collaborative, as well.

The Collaborative is not alone. Many independent groups are resurrecting character as significant life skills to be taught, including such groups as Character Counts, Making Caring Common, and Turning the Tide. At the IECA Conference in Austin a few months ago, Denison University President Adam Weinberg sounded the same theme when he noted that Denison doesn’t just want smart kids, but rather those with other character strengths: kindness, persistence, community-building, and the like. He challenged IECA and its members to lead the charge.

And, for the first time, a student’s character and values made it onto our annual Rankings for What Colleges are Really Looking for in Admissions.

Many IECA members have already joined the Character Collaborative. Members interested in joining ($100/year for a personal membership) may do so at the web site:


  1. This is so exciting and wonderful to hear!! I am looking forward to being a part of this revolution in higher education!
    Thank you, Mark!

  2. Bravo! This is so needed and greatly appreciated. At this point, what is the next action item for IECs and COBs? Is it to join the membership? I read through the report and wasn’t sure what the next steps for us would be.

    Thank you, Mark!

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