Here at Private Prep, we’ve been reading pretty much non-stop about the college admissions scandal that came to light last week. There’s no denying that this is a major cultural moment; myriad articles and think pieces have followed in the wake of the country’s collective shock at this criminal activity, from the inevitable Frank Bruni follow-up piece to articles about snowplow parenting.
But something that we have found missing from a lot of the coverage is an examination of where we go from here. We all know what’s wrong with the college admissions process—the stress, the anxiety, the push to do things “for college” rather than for learning—but how do we, as educators and parents, do a better job supporting our students and counteracting these pressures? And how can the colleges themselves support this goal? Enter Turning the Tide II, a new report released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common initiative. This report, which they’ve been working on for nearly a year, couldn’t be more timely—and we also think it couldn’t align more closely with our own mission of helping students learn to thrive.
While we encourage parents and students to read the full report—which can be found here—we understand that not everyone has time to read a 50-page document, so we’ll be highlighting some of the key takeaways here. In this post, we’ll focus on the pledge from college admissions deans, and what that means for our students.
As part of this report, nearly 140 deans of admission from some of the most selective colleges in the country signed something they call the Dean’s Commitment Letter affirming their commitment to “support high school learning that is authentic, meaningful and appropriately challenging, to reduce problems related to excessive achievement pressure in certain communities, and to promote an admissions process that is healthier for students and families.”
Sounds great! But what does it actually mean?
In broad strokes, the action steps the admissions deans outline all reinforce the practice of holistic admissions, meaning they pledge to look beyond grades and scores and evaluate the whole applicant. Some important points to emphasize:
School context matters.
We talk about this frequently with our students and parents, and this letter serves to reinforce this point: colleges care about your school context. They will know, via your guidance counselor and your school profile, what courses your high school offers, which will help them better understand your individual course selection. Students will not be penalized because their high school doesn’t offer AP courses. Likewise, if you attend a very rigorous high school that limits the number of AP’s a student can take or—gasp!—has eliminated AP’s completely, colleges will take that into account.
When it comes to extracurriculars, quality matters over quantity.
Do admissions officers want you to do things in your free time? Yes. But they also really, truly want you to do things that are meaningful to you, that build upon an interest or passion that you have. That’s why, when we meet students, we ask: what do you care about? How can you do more of that? Not: what looks the best to colleges? What looks the best is depth and commitment, two things that stem from pursuing activities that really matter to you, not from focusing on padding your resume. And on that note: colleges understand that many students have family commitments that may take up a lot of their time; some students may not have time for Model UN if they’re caring for a younger sibling or have a job. That’s great, too, and students are encouraged to use their applications to explain those commitments.
You don’t have to fly halfway around the world or start a non-profit to impress them.
A decade or so ago, it was all the rage in certain communities to pursue community service opportunities (many of which were quite expensive) in foreign countries. Let’s face it; we’ve probably all heard the “pay $10,000 to paint a wall in Costa Rica” clichés. This letter reveals that colleges are aware of this, and while they acknowledge that sometimes these experiences can be meaningful, they also encourage students to look for opportunities in their own communities. “Commitment to others and the common good,” as they phrase it, comes in many forms, plenty of which are in your own backyard. Ultimately, you’ll probably be able to show a lot more about who you might be as a member of their campus community by a sustained, weekly commitment to your local community than by spending just a few days on a project 2,000 miles away.
Authenticity and honesty matter. No, really.
This is a big one, and while it’s mentioned almost in passing in the letter, it’s a point we wanted to highlight, given everything else that’s going on. Their exact phrasing: “We value students who are authentic and honest in their applications.” This is at the core of our philosophy at Private Prep, too. Do we want our students to present themselves in the best possible way? Of course. But that requires authentic student voice in their essays; honest representations of their passions, interests, and activities; and real self-reflection on their identities and values. Approaching the application process authentically and honestly not only leads to great results, but even more importantly, it helps ensure that the journey to those results is meaningful.
The bottom line: Ultimately, Turning the Tide’s goal is to “[put] young people’s ethical character and well-being at the center of a healthier, more sane college admissions process.”
A healthier, more sane college admissions process—now that’s something we can get behind.
Considering recent events, it’s clear this is a hot topic, one that raises a lot of questions for students and parents. Don’t hesitate to reach out to our team if you would like to discuss.