the Good Student

The world needs young adults who are ethically aware, connected to their communities, and ready to dig into the problems threatening the common good. But today’s college admissions process, which can consume teenagers and dictate what they do and value, instead encourages a competitive focus on personal successes and accolades. Colleges admissions do endorse community service, but too often, service commitments become sidelined, trumped up, or perfunctory.

A growing consortium of key stakeholders wants to change that dynamic, joining an effort to reform the college admissions process so it prioritizes concern for others and authentic community engagement. Those goals are part of a new approach to admissions outlined in Turning the Tide, a report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common (MCC) initiative that has now been endorsed by more than 140 colleges and universities, high schools and districts, and allied organizations and scholars.

To actually change the annual rituals of college admissions is a daunting challenge, since many of us have grown accustomed to the idea that the path to the perfect school means focusing intently on personal metrics. But the report offers a roadmap of practical steps that school counselors and college admissions officers can take to reframe the process. The advice centers on one key idea: The importance of intentional messaging that colleges will place a high value on authentic community engagement and contributions to others.

FOR HIGH SCHOOL COUNSELORS

For high school counselors, already the primary coaches in the college search process, a report that elevates the value of personal commitments and authentic connection can help lead students in the right direction.

“It’s a great tool to have as a counselor, because I can point to it and say this Turning the Tide report suggests that colleges want to see that you’re engaging in authentic service,” explains Sarah Style, a guidance counselor at Newton South High School in Massachusetts. “It gives us an opportunity to say, this is what authentic service means, and this is what it doesn’t mean.”

FOR COLLEGE ADMISSIONS OFFICERS

Changing college admissions is a two-way street. Beyond the work that high schools do, colleges will have to indicate to applicants the value their institution places on community service and ethical development — and what exactly service means to them.

To do that, college admissions officers can:

  • Include explicit opportunities on applications for teenagers to write about community service engagements or significant family responsibilities. Some students won’t explain a service commitment if they aren’t given the space to do so. Applications should also give examples of what students can include in this section. Students may not understand that caring for younger siblings or working on an anti-bullying campaign counts as authentic service.
  • Look critically at how service has impacted students. Admissions officers should use these written responses to assess how service has helped students become more cognizant of their strengths and weaknesses, deepen their understanding of communities different from their own,
  • Ask recommenders to consider how students work with diverse groups.Along with asking teachers and coaches about students’ intellectual engagement, growth, and leadership,
  • Consider the messages imparted through admissions materials. At the University of Washington, for example, the school’s key value is contribution to the common good, says Phillip Ballinger, the associate vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions. “And if that’s not being perceived by families and parents, then we need to make some efforts to change that,” he says.

GETTING STARTED

the University of Washington, admissions readers have a “holistic review process” that looks at what kinds of opportunities students have had in their high school, and how they have taken advantage of those opportunities. Essay questions examine students’ day-to-day responsibilities and commitments. “If they’re already contributing to their community before college,” says Ballinger, “that’s something they’re going to want to continue doing.”

Admissions readers at the University of Rochester are looking for students with a “developmental arc,” says Jonathan Burdick, the dean of college admission and vice-provost for enrollment initiatives. And while grades are important, “we are less interested in that than we are at all the other things they still have left to do in college,” Burdick says. “We care a lot about assembling a diverse freshman class with many different perspectives, and that doesn’t always align hand in hand with higher academic achievement.”

A recent essay question at Rochester has allowed students to more directly demonstrate this path of growth. The application asked students to respond to a quotation from Frederick Douglass, who lived in Rochester, that reads, “Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his power to get things done.”

Through this question, says Burdick, “The university is trying to enroll and foster independent thinkers who are positive change agents in their communities, and we want to know how they approach that ideal and do that in their own community.”