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.

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Episode 15: Activities, Activities, Activities

Happy New Year! This week, we’re starting our third series: Getting Ready to Apply, by focusing on high school activities.

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This week, we’re beginning our third series, Getting Ready to Apply, by exploring some of the many activities your child may participate in during their high school career.

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NYCollegeChat Episode 15 Activities Activities Activities from Series 3 Getting Ready to Apply

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 500 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by 46 colleges), or an individual college’s own application when a college does not use either one, there will likely be a section that asks your child to make an elaborate list of activities that he or she participated in while in high school (though there are some exceptions to this, especially among community colleges and some less-selective colleges). Having something to say in the activities section of the application is important in showing that your child is a well-rounded individual, who is likely to contribute to the college community outside of the classroom.

You will hear advice of all kinds from consultants and from college admissions officers about whether it is better for your child to have a few activities that he or she participated in year after year or for your child to have an array of activities covering all kinds of interests (such as music and sports and debate and theater and student government), even if they do each one for just a year or two. It is doubtful that any ninth grader beginning life in a new high school can really plan to choose one path or the other and then execute that plan. But the more you know about the options available to your child in school, the better you can help your child take advantage of the activities that are offered—and you might decide that you want to supplement what the high school offers with activities outside of school, whether those are community activities or private lessons and whether they are free or expensive.

Let us say that many applications also ask whether students have had any honors or leadership roles in whatever activities are listed—like winning a regional speech contest or being elected president of the student government or serving as editor of the school newspaper or being selected as the captain of a city championship baseball team. So let your child know that trying for a leadership position is always a good idea.

Let’s look at some possible activities in and out of school and consider why each is valuable for your child—both in your child’s life generally and for college applications down the road. Some of them require talent or aptitude, to be sure, but not all of them. While this is not an exhaustive list of every possible activity, it offers broad categories of the more common ones.

1. Music

By the time students get to high school, you might think it is too late to start playing a musical instrument or singing in a chorus. You might think that musical talent has to be developed when a child is young. Undoubtedly, you have seen your share of Suzuki violinists and heard these pint-sized kids playing classical violin pieces. But even Dr. Suzuki himself believed that musical ability could be developed through proper training and that it was not a talent that children are simply born with. So, maybe it is never too late.

If your child has played an instrument in elementary and/or middle school or sung in school choruses, tell your child not to quit now. While that might mean taking music as a subject for a grade in your high school and/or attending early-morning or late-afternoon practices and rehearsals, it is all worth it. Furthermore, it is worth it to continue with music lessons and performance groups through high school even if your child does not want to continue with music in college.

If it is too late for your child to learn to perform well enough to be in the performance ensembles at school—the orchestra, band, show orchestra, jazz ensemble, string ensemble, chorus, choir, or whatever your child’s high school has to offer—you could still consider music lessons after school. While we could go on and on about the value of playing an instrument or singing well—the discipline, the culture, the camaraderie, and more—the fact is that music is a great activity to have for life and a great activity to have for college applications.

2. Student Government

Being a member of the student government of a school is automatically a leadership position because it means that your child was elected by his or her peers to represent a class, a grade, or however your child’s school sets it up. We are the first to admit that student governments in high schools are sometimes ineffective and not useful for the students or the school. Nonetheless, the idea of student government is an important one, and colleges know that. So, if your child can run for the student government—as a class representative or as an officer—that is a good thing and should be encouraged. Starting down that road in ninth grade is also a good idea while most of the students are still new to each other and no cliques have formed yet. Plus, being elected in ninth grade could lead to being elected in later grades.

3. School Newspaper, Yearbook, Literary Magazine, Etc.

Writing for any school publication is the kind of academic-flavored activity that can be impressive to colleges because it shows that a student is both competent in the valuable academic skill of writing and willing to take on extra work outside the classroom. But it is not only about writing. Artwork is also often needed on school publications; so, if your child is a talented artist or photographer, then school publications are also a good choice. Working on a school publication also shows that a student is organized enough to meet deadlines and is able to work reasonably well with others inasmuch as all publications require some teamwork. Rising to a leadership position—like sports editor or editor-in-chief or art editor—also gets students points on the leadership scoreboard.

4. Debate, Speech, Model United Nations, Etc.

This is another set of academic-flavored activities, all of which require public speaking skills, analytical thinking skills, and the ability to think on your feet. Many high schools offer students the opportunity to participate in one or all of these. They typically involve competition within the school and with other schools—locally, statewide, regionally, and even nationally. These competitions give students a chance to earn awards of various kinds, all of which can be detailed on college applications. For students who are relatively smart and have enough confidence to speak in front of others and argue persuasively in front of others, these kinds of activities are a great choice.

5. Theater

Who doesn’t love a school play—whether it is a traditional drama, like 12 Angry Men, or a classic musical, like The King and I, or a more modern, contemporary piece that most of us never heard of? If your child has any acting talent—or dancing talent or musical talent—then you should encourage auditioning for any school play coming up. If your child loves the theater or movies or even television, then you should encourage auditioning for any school play coming up. And remember that there are plenty of behind-the-scenes roles for students, too—stage crew, technical crew (like lighting and sound), set design and construction, costumes, props, even advertising the production.

Putting on a play is all about teamwork, and working on a play demonstrates that your child has those valuable skills. Theater activities can also be great practical experience for students who imagine themselves with college majors in theater, fashion design, architecture, interior design, art, music, dance, and even business. Putting on a play usually requires a substantial time commitment, which can be proudly noted on college applications that ask students, as many do, how many weeks and how many hours per week they engaged in each activity on the list.

6. Service Organizations

Many schools have various clubs and groups that serve others in the school community—peer tutoring, tutoring younger students, working in the library, maintaining school computers, working in the school office, volunteering in summer orientation programs for incoming ninth graders, and more. Doing this kind of volunteer work shows colleges that a student is responsible, dependable, caring, and concerned for others. It shows that a student can work well with classmates, with younger or older students, and/or with adults. It shows that some adult in the school thought a student was reliable enough and perhaps smart enough to do the work being asked of him or her. If these kinds of service assignments are available at your child’s school, they are a good way for your child to demonstrate lots of skills and traits that colleges are looking for, especially if your child does not do volunteer work in the community or have a paid part-time job outside of school time.

7. Specific School Subject or Future Career Clubs

There are many clubs that are focused on a school subject or a future career choice, sometimes sponsored by outside professional and nonprofit organizations—for example, the French Club, the Math Club, the Physics Club, the Robotics Club, the American Society of Civil Engineering Club, Future Farmers of America, and so on. These subject-specific clubs may give students an opportunity to get to know individual teachers better (which is especially helpful in the future when college recommendations are needed), and these career-oriented clubs may give students an opportunity to get to know professionals working in a field they are interested in (which is especially helpful in the future when a summer internship might be sought). As with all clubs, they give students a chance to form friendships outside of the classroom and, in some cases, such as a Robotics Club, give students a chance to learn how to work as a team.

8. Athletics

Some college applications have a separate question about athletics, and it is a shame not to have anything to say in that spot. Athletics includes club sports, intramural teams, junior varsity teams, and varsity teams; and, of course, athletics includes both individual sports and team sports. Students who are good athletes—or even great athletes—will, not surprisingly, have a lot to say at this point on a college application. They will often play more than one sport a year and may even be the captain of a team. As always, showing that your child played on a team throughout his or her high school years is the best case scenario, but that requires talent as well as commitment that your child might not maintain for four years. Participating on an athletic team indicates a lot of positive things to a college—even if your child is not pursuing an athletic scholarship and even if your child will not continue with the sport in college.

But what if your child is not a great athlete—or even a good one? What if he or she likes sports, but is not very talented? Then, encourage your child to play on intramural teams or on noncompetitive club teams.

Or consider getting your child lessons so that he or she is engaged in athletics, but not necessarily on school teams—for example, fencing, boxing, or karate, which are all individual sports likely requiring lessons outside of school and could all be started as late as high school. Summer athletic programs can also serve as an alternative to school athletic teams in some sports, like fencing.

9. Private Lessons

We have just talked about private lessons in various sports. And, of course, there are private lessons in instrumental music, vocal music, visual arts, dance, gymnastics, and more. If your child is taking any private lessons outside of school, they should be included in his or her list of activities. A commitment to some of these takes up hours and hours of a child’s time every week. For example, a student who is not serious about dance, but enjoys hip-hop, might spend an hour and a half in a hip-hop class once or twice a week; a student who is serious about dance is more likely to spend 10 to 15 hours a week in ballet, modern, and tap classes. Colleges want to know what students are doing with their time outside of school and whether that time is being used productively. Clearly, taking private lessons is one productive use of that time.

10. Community Activities

There are many kinds of community activities that students might engage in—from playing on competitive travel sports teams to taking classes at community centers to playing in community musical ensembles to participating in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts to working with community theater productions on stage or backstage to going on service trips with church groups. All of these are interesting and valuable ways for your child to use free time, and all of these should be included in his or her list of activities on college applications. These community activities can be especially important for your child to seek out if your high school does not have an array of after-school activities or if your child’s commute to school or responsibilities at home, such as picking up a younger sibling from school, make it difficult to stay late enough to participate in many after-school activities.

 

Internships, volunteer work in the community, and paid employment will be discussed in our next episode.

One Final Note: Some college applications ask whether the student plans to continue each activity while in college. When filling out the application, your child should think hard about that. If there is an activity—and, hopefully, there is more than one—that your child has a continuing interest in, make sure that he or she checks that box. Colleges want to see that students are bringing more to the campus than what they bring to the academic classroom. That is part of what makes a college campus a great place to live and learn.

Remember that activities during the high school years are more important to have when applying to selective colleges. But because a child does not know in ninth grade what kinds of colleges he or she might want to attend or might be eligible for, engaging in activities can prove beneficial in the short run and in the long run. Besides, extracurricular activities make high school life a whole lot more interesting.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Inventing 21st century activities, like student-created online publications, blogs, and podcasts
  • Turning a hobby into an activity for college applications
  • Taking online courses instead of private lessons

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