Episode 62: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part Two

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This is our eighth episode focusing on news stories about higher education—some that might immediately change your thoughts about colleges for your teenager and others that might take a bit longer to consider.  Today’s story continues our look at a new report that grew out of a meeting a year ago hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common.  As we said in our last episode, the meeting brought together college admissions deans, high school folks, and others to discuss the state of college admissions.  The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.

In our last episode, we also quoted project co-director Richard Weissbourd from a recent Education Week commentary he wrote (“College Admission 2.0: Service Over Self,” January 19, 2016),:

For perhaps the first time in history, a broad range of colleges have come together to send a powerful collective message that what’s important in admissions is not high numbers of impressive accomplishments or long ‘brag sheets.’  Yes, academic engagement matters, but so does meaningful ethical engagement, especially as shown in concern for others and the common good.  The report also redefines ethical and intellectual contributions to more fairly capture the strengths of students across race, culture, and class.  (quoted from the article)

Again, I hope this is true, but the jury is still out, as they say.  To repeat, the report was endorsed by an impressive list of higher education administrators from impressive institutions—that is, every Ivy League school plus about 50 more higher education institutions, including some of our nation’s best small liberal arts colleges, best public flagship universities, and best private universities, including Amherst College, Boston College, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, College of the Holy Cross, Emory University, Kenyon College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Oberlin College, Purdue University, Reed College, Rice University, Smith College, Swarthmore College, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, the University of Washington, Wabash College, and Wake Forest University.  Incidentally, we talked about every one of these institutions during our virtual tour of colleges nationwide.  We said it then:  They are great schools.

The question again is simply this:  How much do they mean it?

The Report’s Recommendations

The report makes 11 recommendations.  We talked about the first six in our last episode, so we will pick up where we left off with the final five:

1) “Prioritizing Quality—Not Quantity—of Activities:  Admissions offices should send a clear message that numerous extracurricular activities or long “brag sheets” do not increase students’ chances of admission.  Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities and should discourage students from reporting activities that have not been meaningful to them.  Applications should provide room to list perhaps no more than four activities or should simply ask students to describe two or three meaningful activities narratively.  Applications should underscore the importance of the quality and not the quantity of students’ extracurricular activities.  Admissions offices should define students’ potential for achievement in terms of the depth of students’ intellectual and ethical engagement and potential.”  (quoted from the report)

All this sounds like an interesting proposition, but one that has not really come to fruition just yet.  So, I don’t think parents can put this advice into practice on their teenager’s college application forms this year.  What parents can do is make sure that their teenagers have two or three activities that are important to them, that they do for a sustained period of time, and ideally that they excel in.  These activities should be highlighted in whatever ways are possible—like in an essay, for example, and listed first in any list of activities that is made on an application.  Of course, it is hard to be the first applicant to list just two or three or four activities; most of us are going to wait until all applicants agree to do that.  My feeling is that colleges could easily limit the number of activities to be listed to four (including sports teams)—the top four, according to the student’s own judgment of what was important to him or her—and that additional activities past four don’t really add much to an admissions officer’s view of that student.  I am not sure how many students can do more than four things after school hours that are truly valuable to them.

2)Awareness of Overloading on AP/IB Courses:  Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas. While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions process.  At the same time, it’s vital to increase access to advanced courses for large numbers of students in schools without access to adequately challenging courses.”  (quoted from the report)

Well, personally I agree with this recommendation wholeheartedly, but I am not sure I could convince any high school guidance counselor or principal or bright student or ambitious parent.  And, I am not sure that even all of the admissions officers in the 60 or so colleges that endorsed this report would agree with this recommendation.  Everybody who knows bright high school kids these days has a horror story of a kid taking two or three AP courses at a time—sometimes as a junior.  I have to admit that, when a student is filling out his or her senior-year courses on a college application, it feels bad never to check off that the course is an AP or honors or college-credit course.  Do we hope that all kids have access to advanced courses, including dual-credit, dual-enrollment, or Early College courses?  We do.  Do we hope that kids get sound advice when choosing which advanced courses to take and how many to take simultaneously?  We absolutely do.

3)Discouraging ‘Overcoaching’:  Admissions offices should warn students and parents that applications that are ‘overcoached’ can jeopardize desired admission outcomes.  Admissions officers, guidance counselors and other stakeholders should remind parents and students that authenticity, confidence, and honesty are best reflected in the student’s original voice. Admission officers should consider inviting students (and families) to reflect on the ethical challenges they faced during the application process.”  (quoted from the report)

I think this is probably old news.  No one wants kids to get so much help with their college applications that everything written in them sounds like a paid adult consultant wrote it.  That would be “overcoaching.”  However, let’s also understand that most kids, including and perhaps especially the very brightest kids, do get some help with their applications—discussions about essay topics, proofreading of essays, discussions about what activities to include, and more.  That’s not really going to change—not while admissions to selective institutions are as competitive as they are.  The most I feel comfortable saying to parents is this:  “Don’t be too aggressive in dealing with your kids.  Don’t substitute your ideas for theirs.  And get help for your teenager from an impartial adult, if your teenager seems overwhelmed by your advice.”

4)Options for Reducing Test Pressure:  Admissions offices should work to relieve undue pressure associated with admission tests (SAT and ACT). Options for reducing this pressure include:  making these tests optional, clearly describing to applicants how much these tests actually “count” and how they are considered in the admissions process, and discouraging students from taking an admissions test more than twice.  Colleges should tell students that taking the test more than twice is very unlikely to meaningfully improve students’ scores.  Colleges should also be asked to justify the use of admissions tests by providing data that indicates how scores are related to academic performance at their particular institution.”  (quoted from the report)

Well, this is a mixture of interesting statements.  We have talked about test-optional and test-flexible colleges in earlier episodes of NYCollegeChat and in our book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (available in print and electronically at Amazon.com).  We have said that some of our finest colleges have become test-optional or test-flexible colleges and that the list of those colleges seems to keep growing.  I do want to point out that, when applying to most of these test-optional colleges, students may still submit SAT or ACT scores if they choose to (meaning, if the scores are good and they think it will help their chances of being accepted).  When we look at the average admission test scores of students who submitted them to some test-optional colleges, we see that many, many students still submitted them and that the scores are usually quite good.  There are very, very few colleges that actually say anything like this:  “Do not send any test scores.  We will not use test scores in any way whatsoever in admission decisions or in course placement decisions once accepted.”  We know of one, for sure.  Listen to what Hampshire College says on its website:

Unlike ‘test-optional’ institutions, we will not consider SAT/ACT scores regardless of the score. Even if it’s a perfect score, it will not weigh into our assessment of an applicant.

Many colleges have adopted test-optional policies to compensate for the gender, class, racial and ethnic biases that have been found with standardized testing.  In this case students can decide whether or not to have them considered as part of their application. We are test-blind because we found through our own internal research that in addition to being biased, these standardized tests are poor predictors of success at Hampshire.  (quoted from the website)

That is an unusually extreme—and very intriguing—position.  It also answers the last part of the report’s recommendation:  “Colleges should also be asked to justify the use of admissions tests by providing data that indicates how scores are related to academic performance at their particular institution.”  When other colleges adopted a test-optional policy, some did provide their own internal research—like Bryn Mawr College, for example.  Nonetheless, I am not convinced that this report has the power to get many more colleges to take this particular step.  And finally, there was this statement:  “Colleges should tell students that taking the test more than twice is very unlikely to meaningfully improve students’ scores.”  As a matter of fact, that depends entirely on what students did between test takings.  For example, a student who took a prep course (especially a commercial one) after a second test taking could likely raise his or her scores before a third test taking.  Furthermore, if a student took the test first as a junior, then for a second time right at the beginning of the senior year, and then for a third time toward the end of the first semester of the senior year, I believe that third set of scores could be better—especially if a student had not been too motivated in the first two attempts.

5)Expanding Students’ Thinking about ‘Good’ Colleges:  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.  It is incumbent upon parents to challenge this misconception as well.  There is a broad range of excellent colleges across the country, and students who attend these colleges are commonly successful later in life in the full array of professions.  There are many paths to professional success, and students and parents should be far more concerned with whether a college is a good fit for a student than how high status it is.  Finally, we are keenly aware that reforming college admissions is only one piece of a far larger challenge.  Ultimately, we cannot bring about a sea change in the messages our culture sends to young people unless educational institutions at every level elevate and embody a healthier set of values.  While this change needs to start or accelerate from multiple points, we view our recommendations as one powerful place to begin.  In the face of deeply troubling trends that only seem to be worsening, it is time to say ‘Enough.’ ”  (quoted from the report)

It is easy to applaud that sentiment.  And it is true—as we have said repeatedly on NYCollegeChat episodes, including during our virtual tour of colleges nationwide—that there are many good colleges and some truly unique colleges that most high school students never even consider.  Nonetheless, if you listened to Episode 59, you will remember that another research report said quite clearly that high-achieving students who go to selective colleges fare better—both in college and after college.  So, what does it all mean?  We think it means what we said in Episode 59:  You should send your teenager to the most selective college that admits him or her, if you can afford it with whatever financial aid you can get.  That doesn’t mean that only selective colleges are “good” colleges.  There are many colleges that are super interesting—some might say “very good”—that are not extremely selective.  And there are many definitions of “selective”—“most selective,” “highly selective,” “very selective,” and so on.  But, with all that said, we still would like to see your teenager in the most selective college that will admit him or her.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether colleges could be serious about these recommendations
  • Whether parents can take these recommendations seriously
  • Whether high school students can benefit from these recommendations

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
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