Why College Admissions Won’t Be Changing Any Time Soon

Are college admissions changing?

Photo by Josue Mendivil

Recently, there have been a number of articles and announcements that seem to say that college admissions are changing.

More colleges are going “test optional” and more colleges are calling for changes in the way college admissions works.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education recently released a “ground breaking” report called Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. It is an attempt to reshape a college admissions process that is broken on so many levels.

But, can they deliver?

Harvard’s plan on college admissions

The goal of this report is to shift the focus for college bound students and the colleges that recruit them. They want the system to “…inspire concern for others…, reduce achievement pressure, and create greater equity for economically diverse students.”

The authors rightly argue that today’s college admission system emphasizes personal, often dog-eat-dog achievement in the classroom, on the playing field, in clubs and organizations, etc. This zero-sum ladder climbing is incredibly stressful for students. Perhaps, that is contributing to substantial levels of anxiety and depression among college-bound students.

“It’s really time to say ‘enough,’ stop wringing our hands and figure out some collective action,” according to Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education “It’s a pivot point.”

The report recommends far less emphasis on standardized test scores, which correlates significantly with family income. Additionally, the report suggests a de-emphasis on the accumulation of Advanced Placement courses which are offered in far greater numbers at more affluent schools.

Instead, the authors of the report recommend focusing on student’s ethical responsibility and concern for those around them.

Colleges should discourage “manic résumé padding” by accepting information on a sharply limited number of extracurricular activities; that they are better to use essays and references to figure out which students’ community service is heartfelt and which is “merely window dressing”.

It’s also been recommended that college admission offices give full consideration to the contributions a student makes to their family obligations. Or students who do part-time work that might be necessary given a student’s economic situation.

These are all good ideas

These are, no doubt, wonderful ideas.

There are a substantial number of students, parents, teachers, counselors and mentors who would like nothing more than to see the recommendations in this document come to fruition. Or for students to explore what they find intellectually engaging or to spend their time on what a community needs rather than what a student thinks a college might find unique and noteworthy.

If I were a betting person, however, I would not place more than the purchase price of an often-needed can of Red Bull on the odds of this happening.

Why the plan isn’t realistic

For these recommendations to be achievable, students, high schools, and colleges have to let go of certain heavily-engrained, prized accolades or achievements. That includes the cache associated with the status of, say, a National Merit semifinalist or AP Scholar. Average standardized test scores would have to become meaningless. And, the biggest one of all, college rankings would have to be an object of the past.

I don’t believe any of these things will happen any time soon.

This would mean colleges would need to balance the kudos and accolades given to the student who starts a non-profit. That, while commendable, may not fill a desperate need. What about another student who spends hours working at the food-bank? It’s an activity that is significantly less original and may not stand out in the crowd, but unarguably vitally important.

We would have to stop being impressed by standardized test scores. We would have to start being impressed by, perhaps, a slightly lower achieving student who has overcome bigger obstacles.

Sadly, in a system that prizes nice, neat statistics, this shift will be hard to swallow.

And then, what about the teenager who has not discovered his/her passion yet either intellectually or extracurricularly? Doesn’t it add significant pressure to the life of a teenager to tell them, not only should they go out and support their community (with which I wholeheartedly agree), but to do it in a “deep and meaningful way”–whatever that means.

In 9th and 10th grades and beyond, many, perhaps most, teens haven’t discovered their passion. But now we’re subtly and surreptitiously screaming, “HURRY UP!”

To be sure, there will be colleges that do make some attempt to incorporate these new guidelines. These are the schools that will dare to be different. There will be some schools that get it right. They will care more about the value they add to your life once you enter their doors rather than the statistics and accolades you bring with you.

These are the schools I hope my students find.