The Turning Tides of College Admissions

(PC: Bruce Jeffrey)

The tide of College Admissions may be turning…

Last week, a groundbreaking report was released by Making Caring Common (, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  The purpose of the project was to advance a more humane, compassionate, and holistic admissions process.  The goal is three-fold:

  1. Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.
  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.
  3. Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.

It aims to place more value on service and collective civic engagement.  Essentially, colleges would like to see a greater emphasis on genuine service to others instead of a laundry list of extracurricular activities.  

There is no doubt that the college admissions process needs an overhaul.  It is perhaps the one thing everyone agrees on.  However, not everyone agrees on what those changes should be.  

Initially, the Harvard report was met with strong affirmation.  It looked exactly like what the admissions process needed, however, it soon began to raise questions:

  • Would students begin to trade in the obsession with grades and test scores for an equal obsession for community service and altruistic pursuits?  
  • How would colleges really be able to evaluate what was deemed “meaningful contributions?”
  • How is it that the same colleges that support this initiative were the very ones that had fueled the highly competitive admissions process in the first place?
  • How can these same colleges support both this initiative and the Coalition application, which allows students as young as 9th grade to begin building their portfolios, through an online locker feature on the application?
  • Will these changes really level the playing field between the advantaged and disadvantaged?  Or will the process still favor those that have far greater access to resources and privilege?

For now, many high school counselors are taking a “wait and see” attitude.  The lofty goals touted by the report are to be applauded.  However, there’s little in the way of how colleges intend to implement a plan to reach these goals.  

Personally, I really hope that this report will begin the hard work of transforming the application and admission process.  As a college counselor,  I often wonder “How did we get here?”  Thirty years ago, I applied to college almost entirely on my own, with little help from my parents.  I bought a book from the local bookstore to study for the SAT and applied to a handful of colleges.

Today, we live in a culture where students feel the enormous pressure to impress.  The distinct need to get the best scores and the best GPA and be involved in the right activities to get into the best colleges is high.  And while many talk about “fit”, the reality for many parents and students is that fit equals an elite college.  And so the fast and furious race to get into the “best” schools continues.

So, will this new report really do what it sets out to do?  I hope so.  My hope is that the five highlights outlined in a recent Washington Post article entitled “To get into college, Harvard report advocates for kindness instead of overachieving” will be realized:

  1. Reduce stress by limiting course loads and extracurricular activities
  2. Value the different ways students make contributions to their families and communities.
  3. Stress the importance of authenticity
  4. Alleviate test pressure.
  5. Engage in meaningful community service

Will college admissions ever return to what it was thirty years ago?  I doubt it.  I think it has evolved too much into a competitive race to get in.  But reports like this at least begin the conversation of acknowledging that it’s gone too far.  There is way too much pressure on students today to be the best: perfect GPA’s and test scores, having incredible summer experiences, being captain and president of every sport and club, and writing the best-written personal statement ever.  So even if this report doesn’t accomplish all it set out to do, which is to turn the tide of college admissions, maybe it will at least stem the tide so that the process actually is a bit more humane, compassionate and holistic.


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