How Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project Is Reframing College Admissions

How can universities convince students and parents that they value ethical and intellectual engagement more than personal accomplishments?

Rethinking Admissions | Admissionado

Last month, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report that addresses the current admissions process, which is believed to contribute to a dangerous culture that promotes and favors personal success over concern for others and the common good.

As a result, students believe that colleges and universities value their personal achievements over their ability and willingness to contribute to their communities.

Though some colleges have attempted to convey that they are more interested in students who present themselves as generous and ethical, this message seems to get lost in a larger culture that is obsessed with overachieving and personal success. In addition, this culture gives an advantage to students from a higher socioeconomic status, who have access to more advanced courses and resources to participate in high-profile extracurricular activities and service projects. Thus, this report,inspired by Harvard GSE’s Making Caring Common project, proposes ways to make the college admissions process a healthier and fairer one. And one that will hopefully give students from all socioeconomic backgrounds an equal shot.

Redefining College Admissions

In an effort to redefine what should be important in the admissions process, this report suggests:

  • “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.”

But the first challenge will be for colleges and universities to effectively communicate to students and parents what they value… without continuing to contribute to the intense anxiety and confusion now associated with the college application process.

So, how can universities convince students and parents that they value ethical and intellectual engagement more than personal accomplishments? How can they motivate students to be truly altruistic and contribute to their communities in meaningful ways for reasons other than personal gain?

“Doing with” instead of “doing for.”

Defining Meaningful Contribution

In order to accomplish this, the report emphasizes the importance of collaboration and sustained service. It states that universities should place importance on the “emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience” and “doing with” instead of “doing for,” which can deepen the understanding of diversity gained through service. The report also states that it is important for universities to make it clear that it does not matter if community service activities take place in a remote village on another continent or in the student’s own backyard. Nor should it matter if the student took on a “leadership role” in the process. In other words, take service as an opportunity to simply gain perspective, learn new skills and get passionate about something (a cause, issue, etc.) in the process.

Considering Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds

Colleges and universities also need to make it clear that family contributions, such as babysitting for younger siblings and working to provide needed income, are as important as local or global community contributions. Currently, students and parents believe universities are looking for “high-profile” forms of service, such as building homes in an underdeveloped, exotic region, which are short-lived experiences and are inaccessible to most. While these excursions can provide a form of perspective, contributions made to one’s family are often more consistent, arduous and influential in an applicant’s life.

In order to accomplish this, this report suggests finding a way to measure a student’s genuine concern for others in their community through their daily conduct and contributions. How they plan to do this, they don’t really say… but these changes could help universities more meaningfully assess a student’s ability to contribute while taking into consideration his or her culture, race and class.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the report addresses how colleges and universities could redefine achievement in a way that levels the playing field for economically diverse students and reduces excessive achievement pressure. The current state of applications leads to undue stress for students across socioeconomic statuses: from the stressed out, sleep deprived students with too much on their plates to those without access to challenging academic courses and extracurricular activities. How can we develop an admissions process that not only accommodates everyone, but also encourages a healthy, balanced approach?

Quality Over Quantity

First, the report suggests that universities make it clear that long “brag sheets” of extracurriculars do not increase a student’s chance of admission. Parents and teachers alike should encourage students to devote themselves to a few activities that they are genuinely interested in, emphasizing the quality of engagement over quantity of activities participated in.

Similarly, rather than taking every AP and IB course available, students should demonstrate a sustained interest and achievement in just a few areas. Additionally, challenging courses need to become the standard and should be made available to students of all economic statuses. The pressure of scoring well on the SATs and ACTs should also be reduced by discouraging students from taking these exams more than twice. The report also suggests either making the tests optional or providing data that explains to the applicant how these scores actually help schools measure potential academic performance.

Finally, teachers, guidance counselors and parents need to challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of “good” colleges that will set a student up for success. Students should, of course, apply to the best schools that they can get into and ultimately go to a school that will challenge them, but they should remember that there are many factors that contribute to what makes a school the “best” one for them.

How these changes in the admissions process will ultimately materialize has yet to be fully determined. A number of schools involved in this report, including Harvard, have recently launched the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, an online platform that aims to make the college application process a gradual, “naturally growing” four-year process, rather than a stressful one-year frenzy. It will be available for use starting in April 2016. Will this effort result in careful planning and more meaningful contributions? Or will it simply result in a college admissions process that is a four-year stressful engagement? Only time will tell…

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