The VIA Character Institute lists seven character strengths that can make a big difference in a person’s success. These character strengths can be empowering in all aspects of your life, but become crucial during the college application process. By understanding the importance of each strength, you can begin to build habits of mind that will propel you to success during the next four years, and far into the future. One common thread between all seven character strengths is that none of them are fixed. Anyone can grow and improve in any of these areas!
Grit: In her now famous TED Talk, Angela Duckworth popularized the concept of grit, which she defined as a “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.” Showing grit means having a solid work ethic, following through on commitments, and persevere through failure. Prioritizing grit promotes tenacity and resilience over natural talent. Duckworth, a psychologist, wanted to study why some people succeed when faced with a great challenge, while others fail. She found that grit, not IQ or any other factor, was the best predictor of success. For example, Duckworth found that juniors in a Chicago public school who scored high on “grit questionnaires” were far likelier to graduate than their peers—even when all other variables were equal.
In the college process: Grit is integral to the college application process. From standardized tests to compiling your applications, every part of this process needs to be goal-oriented. It’s easy to be daunted by all the moving parts, but a “gritty” student will persevere and work hard until the journey has reached its conclusion.
Growth Mindset: Growth Mindset is all about “the power of yet,” according to Professor Carol Dweck. While observing ten-year-olds solve puzzles, Dweck noticed that some children responded positively to a challenge, because they believed their abilities could grow through hard work. Other children saw early failures as catastrophic. The more optimistic children exhibited a growth mindset, while the pessimistic children exhibited a more fixed mindset. People with fixed mindsets run from difficulty because they believe that failure is proof of their own limited—fixed—abilities. People with growth mindsets embrace a challenge because they are eager to learn from their errors. Instead of saying “I can’t do this,” they say, “I can’t do this yet.”
In the college process: During the college process, you will inevitably face challenges, even failures. Your first attempt at a standardized test like the SAT or ACT might not produce the score you expected. Instead of assuming that a low test score indicates low abilities or low talent, recognize that you have simply not succeeded yet. Every time you push out of your comfort zone, the neurons in your brain are building newer, even stronger, connections. An initial low score is not failure, but the opportunity to learn and strengthen your mind.
Self-Regulation: According to Professor Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, self-regulation is “the moral muscle.” Self-regulation is the ability to exert self-control, emotionally and practically, in order to function well without getting sidetracked or giving in to unwise impulses. Modern research has suggested that willpower can fluctuate, and, like a muscle, become exhausted through use, or strengthened through exercise. In one of Baumeister’s studies, people were observed to decline in self-regulation over the course of a single day. The self-regulatory energy became depleted, and it became harder and harder to resist giving in to their whims.
In the college process: As a motivated high schooler, you are extremely busy, and will find plenty of opportunities to procrastinate. You’ll need to practice self-regulation to complete your homework and extracurriculars on a daily basis. Set daily goals and work on a schedule that is right for you—be conscious of when your self-regulatory energy is highest, and complete tasks during that time. Remember, you need to stay on track with schoolwork and extracurriculars now in order to ensure a strong college application in the future.
Mental Agility: Mental agility means being open to new ideas and thinking outside the box. When faced with a challenge, you might show mental agility by thinking through the problem in several different ways, considering both the big picture and the small details, and questioning your own assumptions. A person with strong mental agility recognizes the complexity of the world, with all of the complications and nuances, before trying to simplify a situation and explain it clearly.
In the College Process: When you are stumped by an essay question on a college application, try exercising mental agility by starting a new draft, thinking about the prompt from a different angle or perspective. Be willing to spontaneous thinking, and then come back to a more disciplined approach. Remember that your first few ideas might not be your best, and be willing to let them go.
Productivity: The American Psychiatric Organization offers several concrete tips to increase your personal productivity, all centering around avoiding distractions and improving attention span. In today’s digital world, there are more distractions than ever, and it’s crucial to set aside time away from technology, entertainment, or social media, in order to focus on your important goals. It’s not easy, but you are in control of your own productivity, and it can improve. Start with a 15-minute technology break, and then stretch that break to longer and longer time periods. Another tip is to have a group of people with whom you can discuss your progress and brainstorm ways to get better.
In the College Process: Productivity is important not just to studying and completing homework, but also in your extracurriculars. If you participate in activities such as sports or music, you need to be able to be focused and efficient if you want to grow your skills.
Time Management: Time management is closely related to productivity, but has more to do with budgeting your time in a way that will be most effective for you. Professor Timothy A. Pychyl of Carleton University suggests auditing your time over the course of the week—in other words, writing down how you spend each hour of each day—so that you know how you’re currently spending your time. You might be surprised by realizing where you’re devoting your energies. Pychyl also encourages people to make use of even the smallest chunks of time. If you have 10 minutes before class, for instance, you could try to get started on a task even if you know you won’t make much progress. You’ll feel better just for having started.
In the College Process: Exercising good time management could be the key to the logistical and organizational sides of the college application process. By cutting out unnecessary uses of your time, and utilizing the free time you uncover, you can more easily complete tasks like sending emails, getting teacher recommendation letters, scheduling interviews, filling out forms, and researching scholarships.
Self-efficacy: Self-efficacy is the belief in oneself and in one’s ability to succeed. Self-efficacy is built by overcoming obstacles and being inspired by the success of others. This isn’t to say that you can never doubt yourself, but that you will have an underlying assurance in your capabilities. Moreover, people with high self-efficacy believe that they control their own destinies. They do not feel helpless to change their lives.
In the College Process: Positive thinking is key to self-efficacy. There is evidence that verbal persuasion works to increase this strength—in other words, if someone repeatedly hears that they can do something, they start to believe it themselves. This will come into play when you are selecting colleges to apply to. Don’t talk yourself out of applying to your dream school just for fear of getting rejected. Tell yourself that you do have the skills and capabilities to work hard and craft a deserving application.