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College and the Good Student

Here's how high schools and colleges can help students prioritize community engagement and reframe college admissions
College and the Good Student

Part two of a three-part series on changes to the college admissions process. Read part one, which describes a new focus on authentic community service, here.

The world needs young adults who are ethically aware, connected to their communities, and ready to dig into the problems threatening the common good. But today's college admissions process, which can consume teenagers and dictate what they do and value, instead encourages a competitive focus on personal successes and accolades. Colleges admissions do endorse community service, but too often, service commitments become sidelined, trumped up, or perfunctory.

A growing consortium of key stakeholders wants to change that dynamic, joining an effort to reform the college admissions process so it prioritizes concern for others and authentic community engagement. Those goals are part of a new approach to admissions outlined in Turning the Tide, a report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common (MCC) initiative that has now been endorsed by more than 140 colleges and universities, high schools and districts, and allied organizations and scholars.

To actually change the annual rituals of college admissions is a daunting challenge, since many of us have grown accustomed to the idea that the path to the perfect school means focusing intently on personal metrics. But the report offers a roadmap of practical steps that school counselors and college admissions officers can take to reframe the process. The advice centers on one key idea: The importance of intentional messaging that colleges will place a high value on authentic community engagement and contributions to others.

For High School Counselors

For high school counselors, already the primary coaches in the college search process, a report that elevates the value of personal commitments and authentic connection can help lead students in the right direction.

“It’s a great tool to have as a counselor, because I can point to it and say this Turning the Tide report suggests that colleges want to see that you’re engaging in authentic service,” explains Sarah Style, a guidance counselor at Newton South High School in Massachusetts. “It gives us an opportunity to say, this is what authentic service means, and this is what it doesn’t mean.”

Here’s what that can look like in practice. First, counselors can nudge students to expand their understanding of service; rather than framing it as “doing for,” counselors can help students see it as “doing with.” To prompt them to find meaningful opportunities, counselors can:

  • Stress service that is local, skill-building, and emotionally and ethically engaging. Counselors should make it clear that it doesn’t matter to colleges if service occurs in some far-off land or whether the students were leaders. Much more important is that it is an immersive experience that aids communities and helps the student develop skills and ethical awareness.
  • Remind students with significant family responsibilities, such as working to support their families, to include those contributions on their applications. These responsibilities demonstrate the same — if not greater — commitment and caring as community service, but if the colleges don’t explicitly ask, students may be unsure whether to include them.
  • Communicate to students that admissions officers are alert to service that is inauthentic or trumped up. Students should be honest on their applications about how much time they really spent on a project, what its impact was, and what they learned from it. Most college admissions officers will detect it if they’re not honest.
  • Continue to emphasize the importance of a challenging course load and good grades. Says Style, “I would never say to lie to a student and say, ‘Don’t worry about taking difficult classes because schools aren’t going to care about that.’ I do think they’re going to care. Colleges want to admit students who are going to be successful in their institution, and I think one of the signs of that is they’ve been successful academically.”

For College Admissions Officers

Changing college admissions is a two-way street. Beyond the work that high schools do, colleges will have to indicate to applicants the value their institution places on community service and ethical development — and what exactly service means to them.

To do that, college admissions officers can:

  • Include explicit opportunities on applications for teenagers to write about community service engagements or significant family responsibilities. Some students won’t explain a service commitment if they aren’t given the space to do so. Applications should also give examples of what students can include in this section. Students may not understand that caring for younger siblings or working on an anti-bullying campaign counts as authentic service.
  • Look critically at how service has impacted students. Admissions officers should use these written responses to assess how service has helped students become more cognizant of their strengths and weaknesses, deepen their understanding of communities different from their own, or develop a passion for social justice. 
  • Ask recommenders to consider how students work with diverse groups. Along with asking teachers and coaches about students’ intellectual engagement, growth, and leadership, colleges can ask them to comment on how well students collaborated with people of different backgrounds or perspectives, and how those teamwork skills grew over time.
  • Consider the messages imparted through admissions materials. At the University of Washington, for example, the school’s key value is contribution to the common good, says Phillip Ballinger, the associate vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions. “And if that’s not being perceived by families and parents, then we need to make some efforts to change that,” he says. “That’s on us to think now about making a very specific effort to actively seek students who notably stand out as people of the community in terms of their service, their connection to others, or even in a quiet way in terms of their family.”

Getting Started

At the University of Washington, admissions readers have a “holistic review process” that looks at what kinds of opportunities students have had in their high school, and how they have taken advantage of those opportunities. Essay questions examine students’ day-to-day responsibilities and commitments. “If they’re already contributing to their community before college,” says Ballinger, “that’s something they’re going to want to continue doing.”

Admissions readers at the University of Rochester are looking for students with a “developmental arc,” says Jonathan Burdick, the dean of college admission and vice-provost for enrollment initiatives. And while grades are important, “we are less interested in that than we are at all the other things they still have left to do in college,” Burdick says. “We care a lot about assembling a diverse freshman class with many different perspectives, and that doesn’t always align hand in hand with higher academic achievement.”

A recent essay question at Rochester has allowed students to more directly demonstrate this path of growth. The application asked students to respond to a quotation from Frederick Douglass, who lived in Rochester, that reads, “Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his power to get things done.”

Through this question, says Burdick, “The university is trying to enroll and foster independent thinkers who are positive change agents in their communities, and we want to know how they approach that ideal and do that in their own community.”

Additional Resources

  • Read Part I in our college admissions series, defining authentic service for teens, parents, and counselors.
  • Learn more about the new movement trying to refocus admissions away from purely individual academic achievement in Harvard Ed. magazine.

Illustration by Cathy Yang, courtesy of The Prospect

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