Turning the Tide: A change for the better in college admissions

The Harvard Graduate School of Education recently held an “exploratory meeting” to bring together representatives for college admissions from a variety of different colleges and high schools, including admissions officers, administrators and college guidance counselors. Their goal was to take a critical look at the way admissions are handled at colleges throughout the United States.

What came out of the meeting was a report of concrete suggestions to colleges, titled “Turning the Tide.” I highly recommend you read the report, or at least its executive summary, but I’ll quote the key points here:

“The following report offers specific recommendations for reshaping the admissions process in each of the following three areas:
Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.

Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class.

Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.”

The first point wants to redefine community service for college admissions. One of their major concerns with the way service is factored into college admissions currently is that students tend to “game the system.”

At my own college-prep high school, I certainly viewed this attitude towards service as merely another box to check off, and not something done for the qualitative benefits of performing service. The report attempts to rectify this in a couple of different ways, such as recognizing service done for a student’s family (like taking care of siblings or working to provide needed income), and trying to access how “ethically responsible and concerned” students are for others in their community.

When I first read this, I was a bit concerned with the use of the work “community.” It seemed just vague enough to be useless.

However, after reading the report, it appears as if the authors intend the word to be vague. In fact, one of the suggested application questions is “Define what you mean by community, and explain both why and how you have contributed to a community.” I really like this question. It removes the traditional notion of what service is, and allows students to fill in the blank themselves.

From my experience, traditional service is highly hit or miss. I know people who get immense satisfaction out of it, but I don’t think anyone’s getting anything out of being in an over-volunteered soup kitchen stuffed with high school students attempting to get service hours where no one particularly has anything to do.

Real satisfaction from service, at least for me, comes from seeing some way I can make a difference in a community.

And maybe that community is my own school. Maybe it’s my family. Maybe a friend’s family. The point is getting service to be about helping others, not being in a certain location for a certain number of hours.

By allowing students to define the community for which their performing service, college admissions are more likely to get an authentic representation of how the student has performed service, and less likely to get a canned list of service hours performed at various places.
The next point is aimed at colleges getting a better understanding of students’ ethical engagement.

I find this section of the report to be counterproductive, and driving the admissions process away from the core concepts of getting to know the students and evaluating them based on merits and ability, regardless of background.

As an example, one of the recommended essay questions in this section is, “Do you think of yourself as a ‘good’ person? Do you think other people are generally ‘good?’ How do you define ‘good?’ What makes a ‘good’ person?”

Asking deep philosophical questions that the world has been trying, and failing, to come up with an answer to for thousands of years is not the way to get to know a student. What is this question trying to accomplish? Seeing what philosophical school of thought the student comes from?

An argument could be made that the question’s goal is to develop and understanding of how a student views the world, but their better, less contrived ways to go about that goal, such as asking “Describe someone you personally know and admire. What values about them earn your admiration? What values of theirs do you like least? In what ways are your values different than theirs?”

This accomplishes the goal of seeing which traits and values the student embodies, and how they view themselves in light of those values. In addition, it doesn’t require a ridiculous level of abstraction, and forces the student to provide concrete examples.

Although I’m not entirely onboard with the idea of using students’ ethical engagement as a factor in admissions, at the very least the questions asked should be oriented around the student and their experiences, not phrases to prompt regurgitated philosophy on what it means to be good that were picked up in a high school English class.

The final section of the report deals with redefining achievement. This section brings up valid points about how achievement is viewed by colleges, and the possible negative effects on students, but there is no easy fix here.

For instance, the report comments that some students are overloading themselves with AP or IB courses to impress colleges, possibly at the detriment of their own academic development.

In an ideal situation, students should do what’s best for their own development, only taking as many advanced courses as they can handle. However, taking on and handling many advanced courses is often a good indicator of potential success in college. This leads to a difficult situation, which the report has no clear answer to. In other areas, however, there are actionable suggestions.

To combat the concept of students wearing themselves down by taking on more extracurriculars than they can handle, and ultimately not significantly contributing to any one of them, the report suggests limiting the number of extracurriculars a student can list on an application, and pay more attention to how involved a student was in those activities.

The goal of this whole section is that we, as an education system, should see something wrong with our current system of college admissions, which places undue stress on high school students in this arms race of college admissions, where increasingly more activities, service and academic accomplishment is required to get into colleges. And having recognized something is wrong, we can begin to investigate possible solutions.

The report acknowledges that various individuals and colleges will likely disagree with some specific suggestions, but it hopes that it can begin a dialogue of what exactly colleges are looking for in a high school student, and how college admissions should be affecting how those students determine their schedules and activities in high school.

Although I disagree with the report in certain areas and feel it doesn’t put enough effort into others, I agree with its conclusion that this is a topic that needs to be discussed, and I’m glad to see so many prominent colleges putting their signatures on this report.

Post Author: tucollegian

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