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Core Values and Fit: Key in College Admissions

Reflecting on the early admissions cycle that has just completed, we are drawn to this excerpt from Bowdoin’s decision letter. In it, Dean of Admissions Whitney Soule, signaled very clearly what Bowdoin values in its selection process and why.

Operating from a place of care and concern for others, understanding that you are in relation to others – all the time – is incredibly important for how students open themselves to learning. If students are generally aware of others, interested in their well-being, thoughts, feelings, and needs – in addition to their own – then they are better equipped to take in new information, test it, consider it, and problem solve it with more perspectives and options than what they would have started with on their own. Plus, it’s a kind and positive approach to being stretched, challenged, and acknowledged.

When we are selecting students for Bowdoin, we are looking for evidence of student’s willingness to be in a considerate space, a relational environment that will require resolve and generosity to confront stressful information, situations, choices and to grow.  We find these qualities in how students spend their time, what they choose to write about, and how others describe them. And those examples are not always showing up in connected dots that make straight lines. Sometimes the signals are subtle. But we know what we are looking for because we have evidence of it in our community with each new class.


This comes at a time when our political discourse has never been more divisive and at a time when we are deeply polarized as a nation. Bowdoin, like all top colleges, strongly believes in the educational benefit of a diverse student body and seeks to create a community that is welcoming to all backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. In selecting students for its incoming class, Bowdoin admissions officers are looking for very specific personal traits – openness, curiosity, empathy, generosity, awareness of the world beyond self, among others. These, they believe, will allow students to truly benefit from Bowdoin and all it has to offer, as well as contribute to the overall community. In other words, Bowdoin is looking very specifically for students who share its values.


What are the ways that admissions officers assess these more intangible personal qualities? Certainly, letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors that state very explicitly – and provide concrete examples – provide clear signals about a student’s character to application readers. Experienced readers will look for clues as to the ways that you positively impact the classroom, school, and greater community.  Why? This kind of evidence will suggest a great deal about your level of academic and social engagement in the college community.

Your choice of extracurricular activities says a lot about your values. Sure, many high schools have community service requirements and so students feel like it’s just another box to check. If that’s how you approach it, then that’s what your activity list and recommenders will convey. It’s really not enough to just show up enough times to collect your hours. Admissions officers are looking for evidence of compassion, generosity, leadership, and impact and its usually found in records of sustained involvement in a few key areas that matter most to students. No need to rush out and join every activity offered – this is about quality, not quantity.

Students themselves, through their personal essays and supplements, have an opportunity to reflect on those experiences that are core to their values and who they are. Bowdoin’s optional supplemental prompt – asking that students reflect on a line from “The Offer,” written by a former Bowdoin president and a clear statement of Bowdoin’s values– is the ideal vehicle for applicants to the college to do so. A common supplemental admissions essay prompt says “tell us about your most meaningful activity.” Writing about volunteering to teach robotics or tennis to middle schoolers in under-resourced schools is a much better choice than writing about playing video games or perfecting your own tennis game. One is very inwardly focused; the other demonstrates compassion and generosity. Connecting your love of animals to ongoing volunteer work for the local humane society shows your passion…and your commitment.

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There are literally hundreds of ways that students can get involved in their communities.  Remember – you don’t have to limit yourself to school activities. Community bulletin boards and newspapers (virtual or old-school) are full of calls to action for causes and non-profit organizations in your background and around the world. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship sponsor a wide variety of programs that depend on volunteer hours, as do youth sports leagues and arts organizations.

So, look for ways to truly engage with others in your schools and communities. Commit yourself fully and prioritize your involvement. Then, as an applicant, reflect on your community service: how you have impacted your community and what you have gained from the experience. Connect your values and ideals to those of the colleges to which you are applying, showing them the match between you and your dream school.  Ask yourself, “what is it I can give” vs “what is it I can get.”

The skills and lessons you gain from these kinds of experiences —plus the contribution you make—will positively impact you far beyond just the admissions process.

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