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The 5 Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants

Brainstorm What to Write

The 5 Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants
Brad Schiller
The 5 Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants

Why do colleges require admission essays? Do they have a real purpose (other than making you suffer)?

Well, yes. Colleges use essays to see if you'll be successful in college and beyond. Essays that prove potential for success can 10x your chances of getting into selective colleges, so it's worth figuring out how to do it well.

The way to prove future success is through your experiences to date. These must relate to one or more of the five traits colleges look for in applicants: drive, intellectual curiosity, initiative, contribution and diversity of experiences.

Some colleges may value more than five traits. Some schools might value certain traits more than others. Some colleges may call our five traits different things – e.g., drive can be grit or perseverance. Regardless, understanding these five traits will help you identify what to focus on in your essays and throughout your college applications.

Drive;Intellectual Curiosity;Initiative;Contribution;Diversity of Experiences;Focus on Your Strengths
Drive;Intellectual Curiosity;Initiative;Contribution;Diversity of Experiences;Focus on Your Strengths
1. Drive

Driven students push themselves to succeed no matter the odds. They go through difficult and challenging situations and come out better. Driven students take action to make their situation or the situation of others better. They are more likely to be successful in college and beyond because they'll persevere through any challenges they encounter.

2. Intellectual Curiosity

Intellectually curious students spend their free time learning just for the fun of it. They dive deep into topics and subjects in which they're interested. They routinely seek knowledge and often engage with others in the pursuit of understanding. Intellectually curious students are more likely to do well in their classes, and they're likely to succeed in whatever they choose to do in the future.

3. Initiative

Students who take initiative are entrepreneurial and not willing to accept the status quo. They're always thinking of and executing on ways to improve whatever group or organization they are a part of. Colleges love students who take the initiative because they'll be more likely to improve the college's community, become leaders, and make everything they touch better.

4. Contribution

Contributing students make any group they're a part of better as a result of their involvement and actions. Groups can be organizations, activities, a school, a community or even peer groups. Colleges love contributors because they greatly improve the college's community and will add value to any group they're part of in the future.

5. Diversity of Experiences

Colleges are trying to build a well-rounded class made up of students with different life experiences, different interests, and different ways of thinking about the world. Diversity adds unique perspectives to the student body and enables a college community to thrive while adding value to one another. Additionally, diverse students will do a variety of things after they graduate, enabling the college to fulfill its mission of having a positive impact across many parts of the economy, society and the world.

Focus on Your Strengths

Students often struggle to identify the traits they possess because their actions are "normal" to them, but not normal to a typical applicant. Students who are intellectually curious often learn for fun and don't think to write about it in their applications. Students who take the initiative or are contributors often think nothing of their actions and don't write about these experiences in their applications.

Discover which of the traits best relate to you by taking our 5 traits quiz. (You must login to create a free account.)

You'll want to focus on two or three traits that are authentic to you. Brainstorm experiences you've had related to these traits. For example, a great question to ask yourself for initiative and contribution is – "Imagine a group of people you spend a lot of time with; then, imagine you were never part of the group; how would it have been different?"

Once a student identifies a compelling set of experiences related to the five traits, they can match these experiences to a college application’s different parts to ensure they’re sharing a full picture of what makes them compelling.

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Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller graduated from MIT with a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science with a concentration in Operations Research. He has worked in business consulting with McKinsey, founded two businesses, and written a book. He started Prompt with two fellow MIT people, Jordan and John, to make people better writers. Their premise was simple: give everyone access to on-demand feedback on their writing from subject-knowledgeable Writing Coaches. Years later, Prompt is the largest provider of feedback on admissions essays in the world. Come and join us on our journey by emailing