Harvard Report a Call for Updated College Admissions

The steps one must take to be admitted to college weighs heavily upon the minds of high school students bound for higher education. To them, future success will be determined by their academic success and extracurricular activities. Many college admissions officials see their applicants' desperation to compose lengthy lists of accomplishments as opposed to meaningful activities and experiences that will serve them in the future. Kids load up on AP and honors courses in hopes of attracting colleges, even though the student may not have an interest in the content. For the same reason, some play a sport every season while also being involved with clubs and academic teams. Education experts say this kind of high school plan is not best for students. In response to growing concerns among college admissions offices, Harvard University published Turning the Tide, written by Richard Weissbourd with Lloyd Thacker.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project (MCC) hosted an event attended by stakeholders in the admissions process, including college admissions deans. Through discussion, the MCC learned about the current process's problems and possible solutions.

The goal of the report Turning the Tide is to show how college admissions can emphasize both academics and ethics while at the same time "captur[ing] strengths of students across race, class, and culture." Turning the Tide is the first step in MCC's two-year plan for changing the college admissions process.

At this point, 85 stakeholders have pledged their support to MCC. These include several of our country's most prestigious colleges and universities, as well as high schools and charter schools. The recommendations make sense to stakeholders, since they are based not only on research, but also on their schools' needs.

Throughout the report, there are recommendations made to help work to build character, reduce stress, and level the playing field among deserving students. Along with this, suggestions are given to colleges for "assessing students' ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and contributions across race, culture, and class."

Students will celebrate the report's recommendation for de-emphasizing standardized testing, which goes so far as to suggest the ACT and SAT test be an optional application requirement. While the scores of these tests may be an accurate way to gauge the content knowledge of some, the tests are an obstacle for those coming from underprivileged schools and other social hardships. When standardized test scores are emphasized, students have to rely on their resources to prepare them. How can this be fair when not every high school offers AP and honors courses? And those fortunate enough to access the best college prep materials and courses may still do themselves a disservice. Research indicates that some students feel so much pressure to prove their academic success by standardized test scores that they retake the tests over and over again. This is another practice discouraged by Turning the Tide.

Instead of placing so much importance on entrance exams, community service and home contributions are to be stressed. Meaningful experiences that encourage learning new skills are more important than a one-time jaunt abroad to serve a foreign community. The report finds that more value needs to be placed on long-term service projects instead of short-term projects that require a few weeks' dedication. Sample ideas for such projects are implementing anti-bullying or similar campaigns in one's school, becoming the custodian of a local park, and even working an after-school job or caring for an invalid relative.

Skeptics of the report wonder how manageable it will be for colleges to verify students' accomplishments in this way. Even so, some colleges are already revising their entrance essays prompts to provide students with opportunities for demonstrating how their experience has shaped their education and personal development. Students, recommends the report, should participate in "at least a year of sustained service or community engagement" that is both "consistent and well-structured." This stance also encourages students to develop relationships with others from diverse backgrounds. Likewise, the admissions process should include courses and activities that interest the student and that could possibly transfer into a future career. This then, says the report, should be what attracts a student to a college that is the "best-fit" for the individual, not a college chosen for social status.

Considering an after-school job as a valid "extra-curricular activity" is an innovative way of addressing economic barriers facing students, as well as educating them about a field of interest. While some families invest in tutors for their kids, others' well-being relies on their kids' income. High school senior, Tayton Troidl of Buffalo, New York, has earned an income by working in a video game store, an ideal place of employment for an aspiring game creator. Whereas Troidl's peers list a variety of extracurriculars, he only lists this one job; however, this one job shows his dependability, communication skills, and desire to stay abreast of developments within his chosen field. Students pursuing a specific field benefit from marketing their skills to an intended college; in turn, they alleviate themselves of the stress that goes along with an ultra-busy schedule.

Turning the Tide addresses concrete ways in which the college admission process can change to benefit students. Breaking a tradition in the process may cause some colleges hesitation, however, as change often frightens decision-makers into complacency. "Those involved with admissions say the report reflects some of the changes in thinking that have taken place in recent years. But it also sets an ambitious agenda for changing long-time practices." As those at Harvard know, change is a process. The report is a stepping-stone, and stakeholders considering a change in admissions look forward to the next part of the process. In the summer of 2016, MCC will host a summit to continue working on their mission. Attendees will be admissions leaders from colleges, as well as high school and parent representatives.