Kindness in College Applications

By Grey Joyner, Admission Consultant, Elite Admission


What are the most important attributes that college admissions officers look for? You might think of intelligence, academic achievement, leadership, or intellectual curiosity, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Those are all critical qualities to admissions officers. But one attribute that is often overlooked is kindness.


Dartmouth College recently invited author Jacques Steinberg, author of “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College”, to sit in on its admissions committee meetings, when candidates get discussed and admissions decisions are made. When Lee Coffin, Dartmouth Dean of Admissions, asked Steinberg what surprised him about the process, Steinberg responded, “There was something … that surfaced more than I realized, and it was when there was evidence in the file, evidence in the application of kindness, of decency, of humanity, of humility. … Your colleagues and you, you really prized kindness, and you seemed willing at times to admit affirmatively for kindness, all other things being compelling” (Coffin, 2024).


Coffin agreed with this assessment. “Seeing representations of kindness, of collaboration, of good citizenship, of civility, of an openness to people who don’t think/look/believe the same way you might, is valuable as a community comes together, as a classroom comes together. I’ve always seen kindness as a really essential ingredient,” he said (Coffin, 2024).


To further understand the role of kindness, it is important to understand how admissions decisions get made. One of the biggest misconceptions about the college admissions process is that universities are looking to admit the most qualified individuals. In reality, the university’s goal is to craft a cohesive, well-rounded incoming class – the focus is on the collective, not the individual. 


This is particularly evident at highly selective universities during the admissions committee process, when the admissions department comes together to discuss the candidates they have yet to decide on. At this point in the process, candidates have passed all the baseline checks – they have strong academic credentials, they have shown community involvement, and they have demonstrated leadership. Once these foundational hurdles have been met, colleges start to think more broadly about what kind of community they want to construct. What are the most important qualities they want their community to have? Which candidates have these qualities? Often kindness is at the top of the list.


“[Kindness] is one of those qualities that make organizations, campuses, communities gel. People look out for each other. In the digital world we are in, sometimes kindness can slip away. In the place I work [Dartmouth], which is small, where our campus is a college town surrounded by nature, this self-sustaining community needs to take care of itself. … How do we make ourselves the community we hope to be by the people we invite to join us?” Coffin said (Coffin, 2024).


This preference for kindness is not specific to Dartmouth; Jeremiah Quinlan, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University, has also indicated a preference for kindness and related personal qualities. “Yes, we want students who have achieved in and out of the classroom, but we are also looking for things that are harder to quantify, [like] authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good,” Quinlan said (Heffernan & Wallace, 2021).


How can students highlight their kindness in applications? There are a few ways to do so.

    1. Essays: Students often think that their essays need to talk about their greatest achievements, but while that can sometimes make for a strong essay, it isn’t the only option. I recall, as a high school student, attending an information session run by Duke University admissions officers. The presenters mentioned reading an essay that really stood out. The essay was simply a discussion between the applicant and her dad on a drive to school, and the applicant talked about the values that her father had taught her and how much she would miss him when she left for college. The admissions officers were moved by the emotion that the student showed and what it said about her as a person.
    2. Activities: Admissions officers can get a sense for the applicant based on how they spend their time. Extracurriculars such as volunteering at nonprofits, mentoring other members of the community, and starting community service groups can highlight a student’s kindness. However other activities can show kindness outside of structured extracurriculars. Driving a grandparent to medical appointments, picking up a sibling from school, and helping a parent with chores around the house are all examples of activities that show a student’s kindness, and if they are a regular part of the student’s schedule, they should be featured strongly in the application.
    3. Recommendations: Teacher and counselor recommendations are critical parts of the application because they provide the admissions committee with a third-party view of the applicant. Students should show their kindness throughout their relationships with their teachers and counselors so that they can write strong letters of recommendation. Additionally, students should counsel their recommenders that the letters should focus not only on the student’s achievements, but also on their personal qualities.
    4. Interviews: Alumni interviews also play an important role in the admissions process, as they allow the university to meet the candidate face-to-face (or over video) to get a better sense of who they are. Similar to my advice from above, while it is important to showcase the student’s achievements, the interviewer will be looking at more than just that. They will want to understand who the candidate is as a person, and students should make sure to highlight their positive qualities and treat the interviewer kindly.


By showcasing kindness throughout the application, students will show the admissions committee that they are the kind of person who will make their community a better place, which will strongly improve their chances of admission.



Coffin, L. (2024, March 12). Admissions Beat. Dartmouth College.

Heffernan, L., & Wallace, J. (2021, October 24). To get into college, Harvard report advocates for kindness instead of overachieving. Washington Post.