What’s In An Applicant? Harvard Refocuses College Admissions Process

By Julia Dunn on January 22, 2016

Harvard Graduate School of Education was trending on social media this week after the university released a report regarding potential changes to admissions criteria for universities. The report, entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions, was produced by Harvard’s Making Caring Common (MCC) project and involves several major adjustments to the usual admissions process.

Image Via Wikipedia Commons

The alterations are supported by more than 80 colleges and universities nationwide, for they open up the possibility of college to students whose potential often goes unrecognized by the current (flawed) system. This report is the start of a two-year campaign aimed at addressing three goals:

  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.”

Changes to admissions criteria are motivated by the reality that high school students are essentially hurting themselves just to get into college; there is immense pressure placed on students to achieve perfection in every way, get into a top-ranked college, and land a perfect job afterwards. Simply put, college admissions are madness.

Richard Weissbourd, lead author of Harvard’s report and senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said in a PBS interview that “all the Ivy League schools have signed on [to the admissions criteria changes]. A lot of the very selective schools have signed on. And many non — schools that are not especially selective have signed on. And I think, you know, the criteria are still that they’re looking for students who are academically rigorous, but they’re also saying we’re looking for students who lead well-balanced lives, who are involved in their communities.”

While application processes at many universities emphasize the idea of reviewing applicants holistically, admissions officers often place high value on applicants having superior SAT scores, success in AP classes, or excessive numbers of extracurricular activities that may or may not be resume-boosters.

Admissions officers are now realizing that the current admissions criteria that most universities abide by are not geared to benefit students in a very constructive way. Emphasis on test scores and taking on excessive numbers of clubs or other activities sends the wrong message to students, telling them that quantity is more impressive than quality (it usually is not).

Prospective college students are spreading themselves thin to out-compete their peers; for this reason, student mental health often declines when it comes time for college applications, and many students cannot focus on showcasing their authentic selves while they are so caught up in impressing admissions officers.

Image Via Flickr

These admissions criteria changes are designed to shift focus back onto evaluating students in their own respective contexts, using a model that is “more humane, less super-human.” The new admissions process would assess what students have accomplished in light of their personal hardships, and focus less strictly on finite data such as Advanced Placement exam results.

More often than not, students cram as many advanced courses as possible into their class schedules at the expense of their mental health. The new applicant review process detailed in Harvard’s report would provoke deeper information about applicants. What activities have applicants been involved in for many years? What are applicants passionate about? How have applicants been contributing to their communities? How are applicants’ personal relationships and what is meaningful to them? These are just a few of the questions aligned with the new admissions model.

One of the main proposed changes to the admissions process has to do with “de-emphasizing” standardized testing such as the SAT and ACT, which would be made optional. This is a significant change for students who may be poor test takers. Additionally, it accounts for the majority of students whose intelligence cannot be quantified by a numerical score, or by how many obscure vocabulary words they’ve memorized right before a large exam that covers several subjects back-to-back. This change gives students a chance at college acceptance who otherwise may be turned away due to a low score on a high-stakes test. The consideration of applicants whose strengths lie in areas other than standardized exams may help universities increase diversity among the student body.

There is also a recommendation in this report that urges admissions officers at universities to discourage “over-coaching” college applicants who are looking to become more ideal candidates for admission. This would include any extra help applicants may seek to write the “perfect” admissions essay or to come up with a seemingly flawless life on paper. The new admissions model stresses students’ authenticity, and colleges want students who are balanced.

Another overarching purpose of these admissions criteria changes is to encourage students to find a college that suits their needs personally, and not just apply to schools that are top-tier by some certain standard defined by other people. Rather than stressing about getting into a “good” college (which should be a factor, of course), applicants should “interview” schools just as much as schools interview applicants. The report states “admissions officers and guidance counselors should challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success.”

Ultimately, Harvard’s report contains valuable ideas that should be considered for implementation across all U.S. universities — there is always room for improvement when it comes to evaluating students with such eclectic strengths and backgrounds.

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