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Ed. Magazine

Taking Care of Siblings? Put it on the Common App

Making Caring Common pilots new checklist for the online application form
Illustration of sisters
Illustration: Elizabeth Morris

Richard Weissbourd, Ed.D.’87, senior lecturer and faculty director of Making Caring Common (MCC), and Trisha Ross Anderson, Ed.M.’10, MCC’s college admissions program director, discuss a new tool they are piloting with the Common App, which will allow college applicants to provide more diverse information about their life circumstances — information like time spent taking care of siblings. Through the Common App, students can apply to multiple colleges and universities at the same time.

What is the pilot that you’re working on?

RW: The Common App is trying to revolutionize their application — that’s what their goal is, with an eye on equity. And the idea of it is that right now, if you are working 20 hours a week to support your family or supervising a younger sibling or taking care of a sick relative, and if you don’t have access to the internet and you’re getting to school and you’re getting B’s or C’s, that’s really impressive, but it’s not being captured in the current application context. And so, as a way of leveling the playing field and being more fair, we have developed [what we call a] context inventory, which has to do with family circumstances and responsibilities that students are reporting on.

TRA: Basically, there’s this checklist and things like: “I take care of a younger sibling for four or more hours per week after school,” or “I support the family income by working at a paid job for more than four hours per week,” or “I take care of a sick or elderly family member.” All of this is providing some context as the application reader is reviewing your application to better understand you and your life. And we know a lot of this stuff is typically very underreported on college applications. Lots of young people are doing this stuff, but they don’t think that colleges want to know about it. They don’t see how it’s relevant to their college application.

Where did the idea of doing this come from?

TRA: Part of what we did with Common App is bring a lot of experts to the table. By experts, I mean students, young people, high school counselors, admissions leaders, and academic experts — people that study cognitive and non-cognitive skills and assessment. We had workshops, we had meetings, we really kind of dove in deep into a number of ideas, this being one of them. This particular tool, its origins come from TheDream.US, which is a scholarship provider for Dreamers, and we have revised the tool based on feedback from all those groups that I just mentioned.

Who is participating in the pilot?

TRA: There are 12 colleges this year: Amherst College, California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Harvey Mudd College, St. Olaf College, Transylvania University, University of Arizona, University of Dubuque, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. We chose these schools in part because they are a really diverse representation of schools across our country. They all do admissions in very, very different ways. And that was very important to us. We want to see how this tool will perform. Is it useful? Is it helpful in setting context and helping you understand your applicants at a wide array of institutions?

We also want to look at things like admission rates. Are we seeing any changes in schools that are using this tool? That is, is there any indication that in any way it’s affecting their admission decisions, compared to prior years?

How might colleges use what they learn about students who use the checklist?

RW: Colleges wanted to pilot this because they believe it’s important and so I think there’s a lot of interest in it. We still don’t know whether it’s going to lead to an increase in the number of economically diverse kids who are admitted. That’s our hope. We are hoping to do an additional pilot with more schools in the future.

TRA:We’re encouraging schools to really use it as part of their context setting. If you’re already looking at certain things to set the context as you read an application, this would be a natural thing to include. The other place that I think that this could make sense is to think about this as you think about a young person’s activities. If you’ve got a young person that’s spending 20 hours a week taking care of a younger sibling, for instance, it’d be very difficult for that person potentially to also participate in typical high school extracurricular activities.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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