A report just released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education is striking a chord with those concerned about the state of college admissions. The report, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions”, challenges the current emphasis on individual achievement and recommends a focus on both "ethical as well as intellectual engagement". It also attempts to redefine the measures of achievement to reduce excessive pressure.
“The admissions process should clearly convey that
what counts is whether students immersed themselves
in an experience, and the emotional and ethical
awareness and skills generated by that experience”.
The report focuses on three areas and offers the following recommendations:
1. Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the common good
Recommends at least a year of sustained service or community engagement. Service should be authentic, emerging from a student’s passions and interests.
“Today's culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good. College admissions should motivate high school students to contribute to others and their communities in more authentic and meaningful ways."
2. Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class
Recognizing that not all students have the same opportunities for service, contributions such as caring for a family member or working outside the home to support one’s family should be considered as equally meaningful
“There is a competition going on in some communities to see who can have the most high-profile community service opportunity”.
3. Reducing undue achievement pressure, redefining achievement, and leveling the playing field for economically diverse students
Applications should underscore the importance of quality, depth and level of engagement of a student’s activities over quantity
Admissions should convey that taking a large number of AP or IB courses is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas
Admissions should warn against “overcoaching” and remind that “authenticity, confidence and honesty are best reflected in the student’s original voice”
Admissions should work to relieve undue pressure associated with admissions tests (SAT and ACT), making these tests optional or at least discouraging students from taking a test more than twice
Admissions should plainly state that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities
Admissions should encourage students and parents to be more concerned with whether a college is a good fit for the student than how “high status” it is
Remember, these are only recommendations from the authors, who do not control the college admissions process or the Common App. But the report is already gaining a great deal of media attention and institutional support. Upon release it was endorsed by more than 80 admissions officers, college deans and high school guidance counselors.
In response to the report, Yale will be adding an essay question next year that asks applicants “to reflect on engagement with and contribution to their family, community and/or the public good”. MIT is adding a question that asks students "How have you improved the lives of others around you?”. Yale and others are also pushing to reduce the number of spaces for listing extracurriculars in the Common App.
The report is not without its critics. Some are concerned that colleges may have a tough time discerning between a student genuinely committed to service and one who just spins a good story. Or that pressure will actually increase for students to excel in the fewer activities they choose to pursue. And some argue that if selective colleges don't have AP courses and SAT/ACT scores on which to assess students, the admissions process will be even more subjective.
Still, the move for a more “humane” admissions process will be welcomed by many. As “Turning the Tide” concludes, “It is time to say Enough”.