Episode 91: Think Harder About Community Service

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

Hopefully, you have finished your 10 summer assignments designed to expand and then investigate seriously the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. So, let’s review what those 10 assignments were:

You will recall that our original challenge when the summer started was to do these assignments for 50 colleges–one from each state. But even if you did it for just half that many colleges, congratulations. And, as we said right before the Labor Day break, we hope you did it for at least 20.

Now the time has come to start narrowing down that list–finally! As the first deadlines approach for Early Decision and Early Action admissions–mostly around November 1?you and your teenager will want to skinny that list down to a manageable number of colleges, perhaps 15 or so. It seems likely to us, however, that if your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already skinnied your list down substantially. That doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t need a few colleges still on the list to apply to if the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices are unsuccessful.

So, we are going to help you with that narrowing process starting next week. This week, we want to make a few comments on a subject that we believe in strongly and that we have talked about in two of our summertime Facebook Live chats–and that is community service. Today’s episode, however, addresses community service through the lens of the college application essay, which we hope all of you are starting or maybe even already editing this month.

Watch our Facebook Live chats on community service at the end of this post.

1. Community Service: The Background

Let’s start with some background. Some months ago, back in Episodes 61 and 62, we took a look at a new report that grew out of a meeting hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common. 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. We have referenced this report from time to time in subsequent episodes as well.

The list of “endorsers” of the report included every Ivy League institution plus an impressive list of 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.

The question we have asked about the report and its endorsers is this: How much do they mean it? The jury is still out on that and might be for some time to come. But without getting into the politics of all that, which we believe are quite significant, one thing that is addressed strongly in the report is the value of community service. Four of the 11 recommendations in the report revolve around community service done by high school students, and personally I think that these might be the most sincere recommendations in the report. Let’s listen again to just the first of these recommendations:

Meaningful, Sustained Community Service: We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen?that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests?that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults. We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement . . . . This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income. Just as important, it’s vital that the admissions process squarely challenges misconceptions about what types of service are valued in admissions. Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. The admissions process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience. (quoted from the report)

Here’s what that probably means: that the service should be something that your teenager is actually interested in and invested in; that the service should be something your teenager thinks about, talks about with other kids and with adults, and learns from; that the service should last at least a year; and that the service may be something that your teenager does in order to support or help your own family, such as working at a paid job if financial help is needed or taking care of a younger sibling or an elderly relative if that kind of family support is needed. As we have said before, Marie and I saw kids at the high school we co-founded in New York City with substantial family responsibilities, which made it very difficult for them to engage in the other kinds of service that students without such responsibilities had the free time to undertake.

I think that the report’s notion that the service last at least a year is also significant. The report is talking about sustained interactions over time that would speak to the genuine concern that a student had for whatever the community service project was. In other words, the college might not look so favorably on “high-profile” and “exotic” one-week community service projects in “faraway places”–unless perhaps a student did those projects summer after summer in some structured way and perhaps during other school vacations as well and/or had some other kind of follow-through during the rest of the year.

2. Frank Bruni’s Op-Ed Piece

Enter Frank Bruni’s excellent and though-provoking op-ed piece in The New York Times on August 13, 2016, provocatively titled “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?

I would like to read you the entire piece, but The New York Times might be slightly annoyed by that. So, let me offer a few quotations that are likely to send you off to read the full piece yourself, and you should absolutely do that. Here is how Mr. Bruni begins the piece:

 

This summer, as last, Dylan Hernandez, 17, noticed a theme on the social media accounts of fellow students at his private Catholic high school in Flint, Mich.

‘An awfully large percentage of my friends–skewing towards the affluent–are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa,’ he wrote to me in a recent email. He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them ‘with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,’ he explained. The captions tend to say something along the lines of, ‘This cutie made it so hard to leave.’

But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.

‘It rubs me the wrong way,’ Hernandez told me, explaining that while many of his friends are well intentioned, some seem not to notice poverty until an exotic trip comes with it. He himself has done extensive, sustained volunteer work at the Flint Y.M.C.A., where, he said, the children he tutors and plays with would love it ‘if these same peers came around and merely talked to them.’

‘No passport or customs line required,’ he added.

Hernandez reached out to me because he was familiar with writing I had done about the college admissions process. What he described is something that has long bothered me and other critics of that process: the persistent vogue among secondary-school students for so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.

It turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.

And it reflects a broader gaming of the admissions process that concerns me just as much, because of its potential to create strange habits and values in the students who go through it, telling them that success is a matter of superficial packaging and checking off the right boxes at the right time. That’s true only in some cases, and hardly the recipe for a life well lived. (quoted from the article)

 

Well, Mr. Bruni and Mr. Hernandez, it bothers us here at USACollegeChat as well. And I suspect it bothered the endorsers of the college admissions report, too. We know that it is tempting to pursue some community service option that looks spectacular on your college application, but it seems that those spectacular options are meeting with more and more skepticism by the college admissions officers. That problem is compounded when a student writes the all-important college application essay on such a community service experience. Here is what Mr. Bruni said about that:

 

‘The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,’ Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.

Jennifer Delahunty, a longtime admissions official at Kenyon College, said that mission-trip application essays are their own bloated genre. (quoted from the article)

 

“Their own bloated genre”–that’s quite an indictment, I think. What that means is that kids have to be careful when they undertake to write their primary application essay about a mission trip or about other community service work. While Mr. Bruni says that he and Pérez and Delahunty don’t doubt that many students doing this kind of community service “have heartfelt motivations, make a real (if fleeting) contribution and are genuinely enlightened by it,” he also tells a number of rather surprising anecdotes in the piece about upper-income parents who can and do buy short charitable experiences for their kids just so their kids have something to write about. Those are the essays that college admissions officers are on the lookout for–essays that don’t appear to come from some genuine and long-term interest on the part of the kid.

Looking at the other side of the issue for a moment, we can sympathize with kids who are faced with community service requirements from their high schools or who believe they are faced with community service as a necessary aspect of their college applications–even it that is not their essay topic. We know that kids have lots of demands on their time, including after-school clubs and sports and SAT prep and music lessons and dance lessons and the very real family responsibilities that many kids have. We know that community service can become just one more thing to do?not for its own sake, but for the sake of the college application. And, as Mr. Bruni writes, “Getting it done in one big Central American swoop becomes irresistible, and if that dilutes the intended meaning of the activity, who’s to blame: the students or the adults who set it up this way?”

So, who’s to stop that cycle? My vote would be you, parents. It is your responsibility to ensure that any community service activity that is undertaken by your own teenager is done for the right reasons and is carried out with genuine interest on his or her part and with respect for those being served. That is not the high school’s or the colleges’ responsibility. And your responsibility for this doesn’t start when your teenager is a senior. It starts much earlier, perhaps even in middle school, if we are to take into consideration what the new report says–that is, that colleges should start looking for “at least a year of sustained service or community engagement.”

Mr. Bruni has a great ending to his piece, thanks in part to the words of Mr. Hernandez. Here it is:

 

There are excellent mission trips, which some students do through churches that they already belong to, and less excellent ones. There are also plenty of other summer projects and jobs that can help students develop a deeper, humbler understanding of the world.

Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone ‘who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are. He wrote about how people looked right through him at the counter.’

Helicopter parents, stand down! Pérez’s assessment doesn’t mean that you should hustle your teenagers to the nearest Starbucks. It means that whatever they do, they should be able to engage in it fully and reflect on it meaningfully. And if that’s service work, why not address all the need in your own backyard?

Many college-bound teenagers do, but not nearly enough, as Hernandez can attest. He feels awfully lonely at the Flint Y.M.C.A. and, in the context of that, wonders, ‘Why is it fashionable to spend $1,000-plus, 20 hours traveling, and 120 hours volunteering in Guatemala for a week?’

He wonders something else, too. ‘Aren’t the children there sad, getting abandoned by a fresh crop of affluent American teens every few days?’ (quoted from the article)

 

That’s a stunning question from a 17-year-old. It makes me doubly proud of the work that some of our local teenagers do at Adventures in Learning, the nonprofit after-school program for low-income kids that we talked about in one of our Facebook Live chats. Maybe it isn’t as glamorous as going to Costa Rica to save the rain forest, but it’s something real that high school students can do, and they can see the results of their work in the lives of those kids every day.

One last word: Mr. Bruni writes, “A more recent phenomenon is teenagers trying to demonstrate their leadership skills in addition to their compassion by starting their own fledgling nonprofit groups rather than contributing to ones that already exist–and that might be more practiced and efficient at what they do.” Agreed, Mr. Bruni. It’s hard to create a nonprofit organization, especially one that has significant impact. So, teenagers, think about finding one near you and lending your support to it. And do that over time, not for a week. And look for ways to be a leader in that context?recruit other teenagers, make presentations at local community events, spearhead a fundraising campaign. We mentioned in one of our Facebook Live chats that Heifer International is a wonderful organization to volunteer with and that it offers suggestions on its website for volunteers leading their own activities.

Kids, there’s plenty of work to be done. Do some of it and then consider how to write about it thoughtfully in your college application essay. Be reflective. Be specific. Be persuasive. And be thankful that you had the opportunity to serve.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

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Watch our Facebook Live videos about community service below!

 

Episode 79: What To Do This Summer

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

Welcome back to our summer series, entitled The Search Begins. Again, this series is dedicated to those of you–primarily the parents of juniors–who are starting a focused college hunt now. However, today’s episode is going to be useful to all high school parents as kids gear up–or wind down–for the summer. A note to families with younger high schoolers: It might be time to get a jump on preparing for college applications.

What To Do This Summer on USACollegeChat podcastLong ago in Episodes 15 and 16, we talked about extracurricular activities, internships, volunteer service, and part-time jobs that students might undertake after school during the school year in order to give a boost to their college applications.

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 600 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by about 45 colleges), or an individual college’s own application (when a college does not use either one), we said then that 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 order to show that your child is a well-rounded individual, who is likely to contribute to the college community outside of the classroom. We will talk more about activities during the school year in an upcoming episode.

But, as we mentioned back in Episode 18, many college applications also ask the applicant to detail what he or she has done each summer while in high school. Knowing this now will help you work with your child to plan significant summer activities, which are useful not only in filling out college applications, but also in making your child’s out-of-school life richer and more meaningful.

If your child needs to work in the summer to help support your family, then that has to come first. But, hopefully, there will be some time when he or she can also engage in some activities designed primarily for academic or personal enrichment. If your child is looking at a selective college, then summer should not be viewed as a time to rest and fool around, but rather as a time for your child to pursue some interest or perfect some talent or learn something new or do some good for others–at least part of the time. Here are some broad categories of activities you should talk through with your child immediately since some of these opportunities will be closed very soon.

1. High School and College Study

Some high schools and school districts offer summer courses that allow students to take more advanced courses or different courses from those they take during the school year. Accelerated or enriched high school study in the summer is a time-honored tradition and would be a very reasonable summer activity, from a college’s point of view.

But, even better, would be study at a college. U.S. colleges have more summer programs than you can count for truly interested and/or reasonably bright high school students. You can’t scroll through Facebook these days without seeing sponsored ads from a variety of colleges for these programs, including from some of our nation’s top-ranked colleges. Some courses are part of full-time residential programs on the campus; others are not. Some college programs are not academic at all, but rather sports related. Unlike taking free public high school courses, programs at a college can be expensive; but, fortunately, scholarships are often available.

How do you find such a college course? Well, Google it, of course, or resort to the old-fashioned way of reading the newspaper. Colleges in your hometown likely advertise in the newspaper (even in hometowns as big as New York City). Your child’s high school should have information and brochures as well. Out-of-town colleges that your child might be interested in attending are also a great idea, because a summer course there is one way for your child to get to know the campus–even if not the college and its students–like an insider.

One final note: If your high school does not offer students the opportunity to take college courses of any kind during the school year (perhaps through an Early College or dual credit arrangement), then a course taken at a college in the summer–especially one that earns college credit–would be a particularly attractive option for your child. Being able to say on a college application that you have already taken and succeeded in a college course somewhere at some time is, obviously, an advantage for an applicant.

For families who are interested in sending students outside the U.S. to study in the summer, there are certainly programs to be had. Just Google them. This is almost an irresistible summer combination–college study and seeing the world. Great for college applications and great for life!

2. Family Travel

Quite a few students have close family connections in other countries, often in the country that their parents emigrated from. Many of these students go home to these countries during the summer to visit relatives for several weeks or more, often making it difficult for students to engage in summer programs set up by their schools or in their local communities. Students can take advantage of these family trips–for example, by keeping up with a native or second language, by visiting cultural sites, or by working in a family business–and find something interesting to write about on their college applications.

Other families might take a short trip to a different part of the U.S. or to a different country near or far. As always, giving students a close look at important historical sites or art museums or architecturally magnificent buildings or geologic wonders makes it possible for them to write in more detail and more interestingly about these summer activities on their college applications.

3. Internships and Volunteer Work

We have made the case several times that engaging in internships and/or volunteer work lets a college know that a student is responsible and dependable, takes initiative, and, depending on the assignment, cares about others. From the student’s side, an internship or volunteer assignment helps the student explore career interests and potential college majors.

Summer is also a great time to think about politics–especially this summer, of course. Local, state, and national office-seekers can use plenty of extra hands to stuff envelopes, put up posters, and get voters to declare their intentions. Media-savvy teenagers can often reach out to voters in ways that older adults do not entirely understand. A summer in a political campaign is a powerful way to learn about American government and political science firsthand.

Summer is also a great time to pursue a volunteer assignment in a hospital or nursing home. Many high school students–and indeed college students–interested in attending medical school and/or pursuing a career in health care look for these volunteer opportunities, so interested students should pursue this kind of assignment right away.

Summer internships–in which a student has a chance to try out a future career field, under the mentorship of a successful individual already working in the field–are even harder to get than volunteer assignments, so students should have already been looking for those. Parents, remember that high schoolers will be in competition for internships with college students–and, more and more, even college graduates–which makes an aggressive search even more important.

As we said back in Episode 18, summer is also a great time to talk with local church youth groups about mission trips to nearby or far away urban or rural areas in or outside of the U.S. where teenagers can do a host of volunteer jobs for the young, the old, the sick, or the homeless–from cleaning up a park to repainting a house to playing games to serving a hot lunch to reading aloud. Having teenagers do work that helps others, while under the supervision of caring adults, is a win for everyone.

4. The New Report

In Episodes 61 and 62, we looked 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. 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. While we have been critical of the actual commitment of the many excellent colleges that endorsed the report to see their recommendations through to implementation, the report does interestingly take an in-depth look at the importance of community service for high school students. Here are two recommendations from the report:

Meaningful, Sustained Community Service: We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen–that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests–that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults. We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement . . . . This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income. Just as important, it’s vital that the admissions process squarely challenges misconceptions about what types of service are valued in admissions.       Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. The admissions process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience. (quoted from the report)

So, what does it all mean? As we said back in Episode 61, it means that the service should be something that your teenager is actually interested in and invested in; that the service should be something your teenager thinks about, talks about with other kids and with adults, and learns from; that the service last at least a year; and that the service may be something that your teenager does in order to support or help your own family, such as working at a paid job if financial help is needed or taking care of a younger sibling or an elderly relative if that kind of family support is needed. I think that the report’s notion that the service last at least a year is particularly significant. In other words, the college might not look so favorably on a one-week community service project in the summer–unless perhaps a student did several of those projects summer after summer.

Authentic, Meaningful Experiences with Diversity: We encourage students to undertake community service and engagement that deepens their appreciation of diversity. (quoted from the report)

While the report goes on to talk about its own notion of what meaningful experiences with diversity are, the basic idea is clear: work in and learn from activities conducted with racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse groups of kids, classmates, and/or adults.

So, what if that “meaningful, sustained community service” that includes “authentic, meaningful experiences with diversity” could happen this summer–and just as important–summer after summer to build up to the year-long recommendation the report makes? And, better still, what if summer volunteer work could be combined with volunteer work after school during the year to build up to the year-long recommendation the report makes? What might that look like?

5. Spotlight on After-School Programs

Here is an example. For many years, I served on the board of an after-school homework-help and enrichment program for low-income kids, including many new arrivals to the U.S., who would otherwise have gone home to empty apartments. This is a shout-out to you, Adventures in Learning in Manhasset, New York, with its one-of-a-kind executive director Diana Holden. Teenagers from local high schools and adults in the community volunteer in the afternoons to work with Adventures’ elementary-school-aged kids–to improve their reading and writing and arithmetic skills, to get their homework done correctly, to offer them special science and arts programming, and to provide them with the other after-school things that the families of kids in their classes at school provide routinely for their own kids–from Scouts to sports to tap dancing. In the interest of full disclosure, my daughter Polly is doing her master’s degree internship program at Adventures this summer, and my son Bobby did a high school internship there a decade ago. If you ask either one of them, every minute they spent at Adventures is and was worth it.

I read an article recently that proved what I have always believed about after-school programs like these. A study of 6,400 children in England was reported in The Edvocate in mid-May in an article entitled “After-School Activities Help Disadvantaged Students in the Classroom.” Let’s take a look at a few paragraphs from the article:

An academic increase was . . . observed for disadvantaged students who attended after-school programs. They attained higher scores in science, math and English at the end of primary school, lessening the attainment gap between poor students and their more affluent peers.

Academic improvements are not the only benefit documented for children participating in after-school activities. Improved social, emotional and behavioral skills were observed from students who participated in organized activities, in comparison to their peers who did not.

With there being so many advantages to participation in activities including sports, music, language, tutoring and arts classes, many schools are offering school-based clubs as an affordable alternative for poorer students. For disadvantaged students who do not have access to formal out of school activities, after school programming is imperative.

The research could have an impact on policy makers concerned with education, as well as implications for after-school childcare programming.

It is clear that the structure and delivery of after-school activities have a positive impact on disadvantaged students. The importance of exposure to these experiences [is] even more significant for poorer students who may not typically have the opportunity to participate unless the program is offered after hours via their public school. (quoted from the article)

Or, I would say, unless the program is offered after hours via community-based organizations that make up for what some public schools don’t do or can’t afford to do. Having your child volunteer to work with younger students in such a program–both during the school year and during the summer, when those programs offer summer activities, as many do?is a way for your child to make an actual difference in the academic, social, and personal futures of the kids who are enrolled.

And it is a way for your child to make a statement on his or her college application about a long-term commitment to helping all kids succeed. Feel free to have your child quote the same article I did here if your child chooses to write about this kind of volunteer work in an essay on a college application. People who think that having higher schoolers volunteer in after-school and summer programs like these is just an easy thing to do that looks good on an application couldn’t be more wrong. It is much more than that. Show them the proof.

So start looking around for a program like this near you. Your teenager doesn’t have to be a genius to help younger kids do their homework. And, your teenager can offer his or her own talents, too–music, art, sports, or something else. When your teenager wants to play all summer, have them listen to this episode. Because it will be time to do college applications sooner than you think.

Hear about firsthand experiences with community service in this week’s Facebook Live video.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

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Episode 67: A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships!

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Our show notes are usually a close rendition of what Marie and I talk about in our episodes. These show notes are different. They are a heartfelt request for you to listen to this episode from start to finish. You won’t hear another one like it.

A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships on USACollegeChat podcastToday, we are pleased to have Harold Levy, straight-talking executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, as our special guest. The Foundation recently co-authored, with The Century Foundation, a thought-provoking report entitled True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities.

Marie and I talked about the report some weeks ago in Episode 59, and some of the statistics that the report presented and that we discussed in that episode are, frankly, hard to forget. Here are a few:

  • At the most competitive colleges, only 3 percent of students come from families with incomes in the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution, but 72 percent of students come from families with incomes in the top 25 percent of the income distribution.
  • Only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to a selective school, but 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students do so.
  • High-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as high-achieving students from the poorest families (24 percent compared to 8 percent).
  • 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from the same 12 selective colleges and universities.

In today’s episode, Harold weighs in on what these statistics and others like them mean for our nation as low-income, smart kids fail to apply and enroll in to the kinds of selective colleges they are intellectually equipped to attend.

Harold also gives us an insider’s look at what was one of the scariest parts of the report for me—the section on the college admissions process. The report’s authors were brutally frank about that, and Harold is as well as he takes us inside the admissions game. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.

Please join us to hear about all this and more:

  • The inadequacy of current college counseling in high schools and what the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and others are doing about it
  • The generous scholarships offered by the Foundation to high-achieving, low-income students: to eighth graders, for study and enrichment during high school; to high school graduates, for their undergraduate college years; and to community college transfers, for their final years at four-year colleges
  • A critical review of a new report just out from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions (Marie and I recently tackled this report in Episodes 61 and 62.)
  • Thoughts about what is happening to average-achieving, low-income high school students in the college race

You won’t hear a foundation president or a big city school chancellor talk to you like this again any time soon. Really. You should listen.

Learn more about these organizations mentioned in this episode…

  • Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need
    • The Young Scholars Program for students entering eighth grade in the fall is currently accepting applications through April 14, 2016.
  • Big Future, a college planning site brought to you by The College Board
  • College Advising Corps, placing well-trained, recent college graduates as full-time college advisors in high schools
  • College Greenlight, connecting first generation and underrepresented students to caring colleges, generous scholarships, and life-changing counselors and mentors
  • CollegePoint, one-on-one college advising support for low- and moderate-income families
  • College Results Online, an interactive, user-friendly web tool providing information about college graduation rates
  • Pell Abacus, a short cut to financial aid for students receiving free or reduced lunch
  • ScholarCHIPS, for children of incarcerated parents

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

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

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

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

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  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
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Episode 61: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part One

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

This is our seventh 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 and next week’s story 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.  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.

NYCollegeChat Episode 61 New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part One

In a recent Education Week commentary (“College Admission 2.0: Service Over Self,” January 19, 2016), project co-director Richard Weissbourd said this:

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)

I hope this is true, but I am not totally convinced just yet.  Who signed on to this report?  Well, the list of “endorsers” included every Ivy League school plus an impressive list of 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.  They are great schools.

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

The Report’s Recommendations

The report makes 11 recommendations (the report actually has the recommendations divided into three sections), which I am going to quote for you in these episodes, and we will talk about them one by one.  We will do the first half of the recommendations in this episode, so here we go:

1) “Meaningful, Sustained Community Service:  We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen—that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests—that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults.  We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement . . . .  This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income.  Just as important, it’s vital that the admissions process squarely challenges misconceptions about what types of service are valued in admissions.  Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership.  The admissions process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience.”  (quoted from the report)

So, that’s a mouthful.  What does it all mean?  That the service be something that your teenager is actually interested in and invested in; that the service be something your teenager thinks about, talks about with other kids and with adults, and learns from; that the service last at least a year; and that the service may be something that your teenager does in order to support or help your own family, such as working at a paid job if financial help is needed or taking care of a younger sibling or an elderly relative if that kind of family support is needed.  To be sure, Marie and I saw kids at the high school we co-founded in New York City who had substantial family responsibilities, which made it very difficult for them to engage in the other kinds of service that students without such responsibilities had the free time to undertake.  I think that the report’s notion that the service last at least a year is also significant.  In other words, the college might not look so favorably on a one-week community service project—unless perhaps a student did those projects summer after summer and during other school vacations.

2) “Collective Action that Takes on Community Challenges:  While individual service can be valuable, we also encourage young people to consider various forms of community engagement, including working in groups on community problems, whether the problem is a local park that needs attention, bullying in their schools or communities or some form of environmental degradation.  These types of activities can help young people develop key emotional and ethical capacities, including problem-solving skills and group awareness, as well as greater understanding of and investment in the common good.”  (quoted from the report)

It strikes me that these community engagement projects could be run by local government agencies, community nonprofit organizations, or religious organizations.  However, these projects are the kinds that could also be run by high schools, which would help not only their communities, but also their students on their college applications.  These projects might be run as after-school clubs or as after-school semester-long or year-long projects of a science or social studies class or as long-term PTA-sponsored efforts.  If I were a high school principal, I would be talking to my teachers and counselors and PTA officers right now about this idea—because projects like these are truly valuable learning opportunities for kids, regardless of their usefulness on college applications.

3) “Authentic, Meaningful Experiences with Diversity:  We encourage students to undertake community service and engagement that deepens their appreciation of diversity.  Too often, current forms of service are patronizing to recipients and don’t spark in those providing service a deeper understanding of social structures and inequalities.  Rather than students “doing for” students from different backgrounds, for example, we encourage students to “do with”—to work in diverse groups for sustained periods of time on school and community challenges, groups in which students learn from one another.  Importantly, these experiences of diversity should be carefully constructed and facilitated.”  (quoted from the report)

Now, this might be a tall order, especially in some not-too-diverse communities.  I also strongly believe that students can “do for” others without being patronizing.  For many years, I served on the board of an after-school homework-help and enrichment program for low-income kids, including some newly arrived in the U.S., who would otherwise have gone home to empty apartments.  Teenagers from local high schools volunteered in the afternoons to work with our elementary-school-aged kids.  Were some of the teenagers patronizing?  Probably so, even when they didn’t mean to be.  But did they go away with “a deeper understanding of social structures and inequalities”?  Yes, many of them did.  With that said, I also see the value of the “doing with” philosophy.  Could high schools play a role in putting together these projects, where kids from diverse backgrounds work together toward a worthwhile goal?  I believe so; but, as the recommendation says, “these experiences of diversity should be carefully constructed and facilitated.”  That takes a dedicated high school staff member or two or three to pull off.

4) “Service that Develops Gratitude and a Sense of Responsibility for the Future:  We encourage students to take up forms of community engagement, service and reflection that help them appreciate the contributions of the generations before them—how their lives are built on the service of others—and their responsibility to their descendants.  Working within a tradition, whether religious or secular, such as 4H clubs, can help generate this kind of gratitude and responsibility.”  (quoted from the report)

My guess is that this type of service is probably best left to community groups and religious organizations.  Any community project that is devoted to recording or celebrating the history of the area or of its people could qualify.  For example, I can imagine a great project where Brooklyn students volunteer their time to give tours of the historic buildings or do educational events with younger students at Weeksville, which was a community founded by African-American freedmen in the mid-1800s.  That would be a way to honor previous generations and give to future generations.  I can also imagine that, in communities where many high school graduates continue to live and work, intergenerational community service activities between older alums and current high school students could prove rewarding.

5) “Contributions to One’s Family:  The admissions process should clearly send the message to students, parents and other caregivers that not only community engagement and service, but also students’ family contributions, such as caring for younger siblings, taking on major household duties or working outside the home to provide needed income, are highly valued in the admissions process.  Far too often there is a perception that high-profile, brief forms of service tend to count in admissions, while these far more consistent, demanding, and deeper family contributions are overlooked.  Students should have clear opportunities to report these family contributions on their applications.”  (quoted from the report)

Marie and I certainly agree that this is an issue with lots of kids, especially perhaps lower-income urban kids.  I do not think that college applications always make it obvious to kids where they should write about these kinds of family responsibilities.  They can list paid jobs held or other family care activities done during the summer, for example, but those lists do not always give kids a chance to describe their family situation or explain all that they really do.  Sometimes family responsibilities can be the focus of an essay on an application, especially a supplemental essay or the second essay in the Common App where kids are asked to add anything else they want to say.  But I don’t think that these options are really the “clear opportunities” that the report is calling for.  A specific question about family care and support would be better—but I worry that all kids will now feel that this is one more thing they have to be able to respond to in order to get into college, which rather weakens the point of adding the question in the first place.

6) “Assessing Students’ Daily Awareness of and Contributions to Others:  The admissions process should seek to assess more effectively whether students are ethically responsible and concerned for others and their communities in their daily lives.  The nature of students’ day-to-day conduct should be weighed more heavily in admissions than the nature of students’ stints of service.”  (quoted from the report)

Wow.  That is more than I imagine almost any college application can actually do.  The only way I can see to make this happen is to suggest on recommendation forms that teachers and guidance counselors and other adults (like clergy, internship supervisors, and employers) consider this character trait and individual behavior when writing their college recommendations for students.  Some of these adults have a window into the daily or at least weekly activities of students and might be able to comment on how they see a student interacting with others, reaching out to help others, or serving as a role model or leader for others at school, at work, in places of worship, or in the greater community.

So there you have the first six of the 11 report recommendations.  They are an interesting bunch.  More next week!

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • How easy it might be for colleges to take these recommendations
  • How high schools could make a difference
  • How history might have predicted some of these recommendations

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

Connect with us through…

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.