Making Caring Count in College Admissions

Caring-Count-in-College-Adm

I have three teenagers. One’s in college. One’s about to apply. One is still blessedly clueless about the hell to come her way.

So the other day, I was surprised to hear their high school principal announce to an auditorium of parents, “Schools need to put the joy back into the experience of applying to college.”

I felt like standing up and shouting “Halleluah!” like a gospel singer in call-and-response hymn.

Because trust me, there is no joy today in applying to college. It’s a grind of taking tests, retaking tests, doing hours of nightly homework, stressing over grades (and cajoling teachers to raise every grade from a B+ to an A-), and viewing every activity through the lens of how it would read on a college application. And that’s before the tenterhooks of wondering whether you’ve gotten in or not, and how you are going to explain to the three trillion people who ask you about college daily that XYZ school rejected you.

Although the process can be intimidating, there absolutely should be joy in applying to college. Evaluating your strengths and interests at age 17 or 18 is a key component of filling out a college application, and deciding what you want from four of the most important, most expensive years of your life. The application experience, at its best, can be transformative and exhilarating. We parents and schools would better serve our children by getting them to stop and examine themselves, not their GPAs or impressive achievements. Instead, too often teenagers today feel that their entire life is a Race to Nowhere, with intense pressure on them to secure top grades, participate in an inhumane amount of leadership activities outside of school, and play multiple sports at a competitive level.

Apparently, the heavyweights at Harvard, MIT, Yale, and more than 85 other admissions personnel and education reform advocates, agree. A large consortium of college admissions deans have banded together in a two-year effort to harness their collective influence to send a persuasive, unified message that ethics, sincerity, and humanity more fairly capture the potential of students across race, income levels, and cultures than historical yardsticks such as SAT scores and GPAs. In fact, the Harvard-led group recommends that kindness, concern for others, and a commitment to justice play as much, or more important a role than grades and test scores do in current college admittance standards, according to new research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

This is a revolutionary message that we parents should heed.

“Too often, today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good,” said Richard Weissbourd, co-director of the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard. “Admissions deans are stepping up collectively to underscore the importance of meaningful engagement in communities and greater equity for economically diverse students.”

How to capture kindness and empathy on the Common App? As any parent knows, it’s critical to instill in kids but hard to measure and reward; there’s no standardized test for those qualities, no weekly allowance for goodness, no metric that measures the depth of a child’s heart. So instead, the Making Caring Common Project recommends that colleges add application questions that give students an opportunity to describe their contributions to their families, communities, and the public good. The thinking is that many low-income applicants, or students from families without a tradition of elite educational achievement, or simply non-traditional but qualified candidates, have been unfairly penalized by not having the time, financial resources, or parental know-how to focus on getting the highest test scores, grades, and extracurricular accolades that have historically helped their more economically secure and educationally elite peers gain entry to college in the past.

Some kids don’t know how to prep for college; others are too busy working to help their families, caring for older relatives, or helping raise younger siblings to participate in the extreme college application process their whiter, wealthier peers are focused on practically from birth. But colleges want and need these types of resilient, grounded, dedicated kids. Our society does too. And we, as parents, benefit from raising kids who care as much about their families, and the world around them, as they do about winning the robotics competition or being the starting lacrosse goalie. That’s a race to somewhere that all parents can and should cheer on.

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