By May S. Ruiz
College applications: they are a rite of passage among teenagers in this country. High schoolers spend 18 months of their life focused on this singular pursuit – actively padding resumes, accumulating countless hours of community service work, and preparing feverishly to get high scores in standardized tests – with the hope they would be good enough to merit admissions officers’ interest and acceptance to their dream school.
In its present form, the process arguably favors students with the resources to take test-prep classes, hire independent counselors to “package” them, travel to far-flung countries to build houses as part of their community service, and intern for prestigious corporations – all for the purpose of burnishing applicants’ resumes.
In January of this year, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education released a study, purportedly to change the college admissions process, which many see as a broken system. Titled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions,” it enumerated recommendations that would change how students are evaluated.
The authors of the report touched on three areas: promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good; assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture, and class; and redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.
At Blair High School, in the Pasadena Unified School District, community service activism is a component of its International Baccalaureate program, according to college counselor, Karen Favor. She says, “Students identify a need for the school or the community, develop a plan with other schools, people or community, address that need and complete it in 150 hours. The Harvard study’s second recommendation – collective action that takes on community challenges – validates what we are already doing.”
Favor adds, “I also appreciate its recommendation for assessing ethical engagement and contributions to others across race, culture, and class – specifically the one touching on contributions to one’s family. More and more, we see students who also are caregivers for the elderly in their family. We had one student who had a grandfather with Alzheimer’s living at home. She woke him up every morning, fed him breakfast before going to school, then fed him dinner when she got back home. Besides providing care for him, she also had to deal with the mood swings that come with the disease.”
At Flintridge Prep, a seventh through 12th grade independent school in La Canada, Harvard’s seminal report has been widely circulated. Gloria Diaz Ventura, director of college counseling, reveals, “We know it well, it’s posted outside my office door. I believe in the words and to me it’s two different things. It’s something I will use to promote a balanced and healthy college process. The second issue is whether or not I feel if, in fact, this document will implement change in the college application process.
“Having worked at highly selective institutions, I’m very clear on the institutional standards and how the process works. But I believe in the document because I have to; I have to believe there’s a better way because right now I don’t see how we can keep going at this rate. The extreme selectivity among universities is creating unhealthy behaviors on the high school side.
“While we don’t have a community service requirement, we encourage our students to be part of their community. Our messaging is so clear that life has to be more than test scores and grades. We have a middle class ethos – there is no entitlement and we don’t forget where we come from,” Ventura further expounds.
Prep’s headmaster, Peter Bachmann, pronounces, “We support the values of the Harvard report, which are extremely compatible with Flintridge Prep’s. We sincerely hope that colleges around the country truly embrace them.”
Among independent schools in Pasadena, community service and doing good for others are already part of their moral ethos. Kate Morin, head of school at Mayfield Senior, says “That’s our core mission – Action Not Words. It’s really about empowering our students to be leaders in making the world a better place.”
Morin recounts, “When I met recently with several generations of alums in San Francisco and in New York – some of whom were in their 70s – that’s what they want to talk to us about. They all have continued to serve the community in various ways, an extension or expansion of the work they started back when they were at Mayfield; maybe as part of their experience on Cornelia Connelly Day or Annual Service Day.”
Lori Holtrust, Mayfield college counselor, echoes Morin’s words, “We foster the development of the whole person. I think we’ve found that students are learning because they’re intrigued – they’re diving in. I don’t know that they’re doing it for college admissions. We focus on the journey of development, learning and understanding. And the college piece just happens.”
Sequoyah School, which will welcome its first ninth grade class this fall, has instilled this “habit of mind,” even among their elementary and middle school students. Marc Alongi, high school director, says “Our curriculum is designed to prepare students to graduate as experienced, confident and resourceful problem solvers, who know how to apply their knowledge and passion using strategies that can make a difference for their communities and for their own lives. Students will be challenged to think critically and creatively, learn how to work in diverse teams, and communicate ideas successfully.”
“The Harvard study certainly aligns with our values; our high school curriculum is framed along those lines. We aren’t merely preparing our students for college, we’re educating them. We want to inspire curious learners who are passionate and engaged about what they’re doing and connected to their community.
“Oftentimes the college process distracts students from that; they focus on APs, grades, test scores, extra-curriculars. Again and again, you hear in the media about college admissions officers seeing window dressing on students applications, not genuine interest. Are the community service hours being done to merely check off a box or is it for a deeper purpose? Our program for social innovation makes students responsible for their own impact project. It would show genuine interest and commitment; they’d have a real story to tell in their college essay.
“The question for college admissions officers is how do they sort through the application? Are they using SAT scores as the initial filter? Some of these essays may still not get read; but if they are read, does it make a difference?” Alongi further queries.
Ventura of Flintridge Prep, voices this same concern. “In large offices, it’s newly graduated professionals from that school – 22-, 23-, or 24-year-old grads – reading the file. Not unless the dean or director is telling them this is what they’re going to emphasize, they’ll just be following their marching orders. The deans, in turn, are following what the university president is telling them.
“College admissions officers need to evaluate what they’re valuing and what they’re praising at the end of the day. It’s very political – you have to look at these institutions and how they’re tied to Wall Street and political organizations. Community service by itself doesn’t get you into Harvard,” Ventura states.
Another Mayfield college counselor, Abigail Shaw, opines, “I think colleges are honest that they’re looking holistically. They want students with broader perspectives. A lot of colleges are shifting their priorities – there are schools which are making the testing element optional and it’s building every single year. They are realizing that testing doesn’t necessarily present a true reflection of what a student can provide in their community so they’re taking it to heart. But I think in terms of the full spectrum of colleges making that shift … it’s not going to happen.”
According to Jodi Sweeney, the media spokesperson for the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), “The intentions of the report are very noble. From our perspective, we feel that the report meshes well with our programming. Independent schools are preparing citizens of the world; we really work hard to help students find a balance so that they’re selecting courses with an appropriate amount of rigor so that they’re able to engage in the life of the community.
“We encourage our students to challenge themselves, find authentic service opportunities, and have transformative experiences. But we also want them to thrive and get sleep at night. It’s a balancing act and the landscape right now is more is more. And until we see that colleges really are recognizing and valuing a student who engages deeply in two or three activities and rewarding that with an acceptance, we won’t be making great changes to our college application process.
“Often admissions officers talk about the transcript being the most important component of the application – more so than the ACT or SAT. But when you look at the median scores at the schools, you’ll see that ranges are very high. College applications are so complex that it’s a perfect storm; fixing it requires a collective effort.
“Technology and the ease with which students can apply to more schools, have also increased the competition. While we encourage them to be thoughtful and do intentional searches, students put out 12 to 15 applications because they can.
“We’re waiting to see what impact this report has on admissions selection and their recruitment process. Right now it’s GPA- and SAT-based. We want to get a sense from college admissions officers how they’re going to tweak their process,” Sweeney says.
At the core of the Harvard report is a fundamental issue – raising children with a moral compass who will grow up to be upstanding citizens of their community and the world. And that process starts during childhood.
Dr. Robert Nafie, headmaster of Clairbourn School, a pre-K to eighth grade school in San Gabriel, offers his insight to support it. “Encouraging young people to take a more ethical path of social responsibility and community service must begin in the home. Additionally, it must be embraced at the individual level or there will be nothing but lip-service to perceived expectations. It is a way of life, not a fulfillment of college admissions criteria.
“The position paper implies students who demonstrate social responsibility and concern for the common good to be more desirable than those who have not exhibited such. However, it is doubtful that these institutions would accept social and ethical engagement in lieu of proven proficiency and knowledge in chosen fields of study. Although it is not clear from reading the study, it is likely that the report is actually arguing for the use of social and ethical engagement as an important secondary consideration, or even at the tertiary level, in the admissions process,” Dr. Nafie further opines.
While emphasis on the empathetic record might be highly desirable in a liberal arts college which focuses on the humanities or in education, social services, counseling, even law, Dr. Nafie puts forth that this does not hold true in technical areas.
“In the technical fields, content mastery and demonstrated proficiency will continue to be paramount. And the United States must continue to strive for excellence as measured by objective standards instead of anecdotal testimony. In science, medicine, aviation, and mathematics, for example, no amount of motivation, intention, or concern, will make up for lack of precision or knowledge.
“When content mastery and demonstrated proficiency are substantially equal in college applicants, admissions officers should evaluate important but less critical elements in making their decisions. Without such a strong standard for objective measures of readiness, American colleges will be pulled into accepting good enough instead of reaching for genuine excellence,” Dr. Nafie posits.
American universities are the envy of the world. Students everywhere aspire to gain admission to them. It is incumbent upon these institutions of higher learning to find the students who can balance scholastic ability and ethical responsibility.