Why Empathy is Important in Admissions

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A college resume focuses on academic performance, extracurricular activities, volunteer experience, hobbies, and awards. But there are also a handful of traits colleges should explicitly look for, including a positive attitude, leadership, curiosity, persistence, open-mindedness, risk-taking, compassion, creativity, collaboration, cultural intelligence, and empathy. 

Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand other people's feelings, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, empathy is the state of caring for others and “feeling their pain.” It is an emotional response to shared humanity. 

“Empathy is an important variable in the maintenance and improvement of our social fabric, and the academic sphere is no exception,” Emily Campion, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, told Talent Select AI in a recent interview.

“Building this social competency can influence a student’s success in the classroom, their success in networking, and their eventual success in a job,” she continued. 

Why is Empathy a Desirable Trait in Applicants?

While tests such as the SAT and ACT measure a student’s raw intelligence and core competency in various subjects, they cannot measure less quantifiable skills and assets one needs to succeed in college.

Many personality psychologists believe that there are five basic dimensions of personality, often referred to as the "Big 5" personality traits. These five primary personality traits are extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.

While being a great student requires a mix of skills to create the conditions for engagement, happiness, and performance, one quality missing from this list might be the most important one: empathy. 

In academia, having empathy means taking action to help other students, engaging in community service work, tutoring struggling students, willingly taking care of siblings to help a parent working multiple jobs, or political activism. 

And neuroscientific research indicates that the ability to empathize is positively correlated to improvements in intelligence, successful learning, memory formation, and advancements in school performance. 

Essentially, students' ability to empathize enhances their ability to learn and helps them develop knowledge and skills vital to succeeding in college and life.

As students go through tough times, struggle with burnout, or find it challenging to balance school work and personal life, empathy can be a powerful antidote and contribute to positive experiences for individuals and teams. 

A recent Catalyst study found that empathy has significant constructive effects. One of the study's key findings was that when researchers introduced empathy into group decision-making, it increased cooperation and even caused people to be more empathetic. 

Empathy fostered more empathy. Empathy has been identified as “the emotional sustenance for outstanding human performance,” both in school and out.

“When a student can empathize with their teammate, they are improving intra-team relations and well-being, increasing the likelihood that the teammate will step up, and creating a culture of psychological safety in their team where members can be open about obstacles other members can help them solve,” Campion stated. 

Recent Harvard Business School research found that empathy is an essential leadership quality. Students with higher empathy are more likely to cross cultural boundaries and create shared directions between groups with different histories, perspectives, values, and cultures in college and the outside world. 

Empathic people tend to develop deep relationships with others. And these relationships can potentially strengthen the college community and the community beyond college.

Overall, empathy is an integral part of our human condition—at school, at work, and in our personal lives. But the other side of the coin is also allowing ourselves empathy. Allowing ourselves grace and compassion is as crucial as offering it to others. 

How Students Can Elicit Empathy in College Applications 

A traditional college application essay requires an open-ended personal statement responding to broad prompts. The prompt may ask the student to share a story, reflect on an event, or share a personal experience. 

Admission officers should look for empathy through an applicant's thoughtful response to a college essay topic. 

Andrea Van Niekerk, former associate director of admissions at Brown University, explained that some colleges will ask applicants to write about how they have helped to make the world a better place. This specific prompt urges students to feel sympathy for those with less privilege than they have. 

But often, students describe their community service as a one-way street. They feel bad for someone who might not have what they have and explain what they have done to alleviate that need. They rarely realize that there is another side to the philanthropic equation. 

“When students present themselves in essays and interviews, it is often clear that they have not given much thought to who their audience is. They ascribe to themselves the qualities they feel colleges value (I am determined, helpful, diligent, resilient, and keen to help others). It does not occur to them that what they’re trying to say may not be what the other side is hearing,” Niekerk stated. 

“We might want to open a conversation with young adults – as parents and as counselors – about what and who is on the other side of that helping hand; to add to their emotional sympathy for the less privileged some of the awareness that comes from a more rational empathy,” she continued. 

At a basic level, sympathy involves understanding from your own perspective, while empathy involves putting yourself in the other person's shoes and understanding WHY they may have these particular feelings.

In a college essay, students must communicate the value of moving away from seeing the world strictly through their own eyes. Through their every interaction, there is another viewpoint present, too. Sympathy is feeling; empathy is action. Sympathy identifies a problem; empathy demands a solution.

Neuroscientific research indicates that empathy is positively correlated to improvements in intelligence, successful learning, memory formation, and advancements in school performance.


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