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An Analysis of Turning the Tide; Harvard Education School Report Calls for Reforming Admissions Practices

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On Wednesday, a less than impressive report was released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (full disclosure, I am a graduate of the institution) that suggested various tweaks to the college admissions process that would supposedly benefit society and the lives of applicants in various ways. The report was not unimpressive in terms of what their stated goals were; it was unimpressive in terms of the recommendations they laid out and those that they left out.

Image from the cover of the Harvard Report
Image from the cover of the Harvard Report

In short, the report was an effort spearheaded by the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard that understandably served to promote their broader mission in a manner that would predictably garner significant media attention. They investigated ways in which the college admission process could be altered to compel college applicants to become more socially engaged, aware, and valuable contributors to a more ethical and humane society—ambitious and commendable goals. As a benefit to the people they collaborated with and in order to gain broader appeal (in a pretty obvious afterthought sort of way), they also touched upon how to make the high schools years less stressful for students.

Virtually everything of value was provided in the executive summary, with the body of the report adding little to no value. Their general thesis was that the college admissions process weighs heavily on the minds and influences the actions of high school students to such a large degree that it can be leveraged to influence the actions of those students for the betterment of society (and make life easier on the students in the process, again, as an afterthought). The report then lays out three broader ways in which the admissions process should be altered.

  1. Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.
  2. Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across, race, culture and class.
  3. Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.

Associated with each of these three areas were more specific recommendations. I will address each of the three areas more broadly, and touch upon some of the specific recommendations in my analysis.

Community / Public Service:

The first area of focus revolves around community or public service, and is clearly the primary listed concern for the Making Caring Common Project. They want to promote authentic, meaningful, sustained community service that deepens appreciation of diversity, and develops gratitude for the past and a sense of responsibility for the future. That’s a lot to chew on.

The idea of using the admissions process to transform 50 million students from self-absorbed, achievement-oriented gunners into generous, outward facing, compassionate, society-first contributors to society is appealing. It’s also naïve. Such remarkable change cannot be driven through a process that a minority of the student population seriously concerns themselves with, and for that minority, often not until 11th or 12th grade.

The report encourages meaningful and sustained community service that is authentically chosen. It should be obvious that meaningful and sustained service is unlikely to be realized if it isn’t authentically chosen, because it is exceedingly difficult for most people to invest significant time and energy into something they don’t really care about. In fact, the only students who are likely to excel at doing so in an unauthentic sort of way are the same students who are currently neurotically achieving perfect GPAs in spite of their personal interests. Meaning that nothing will really change in terms of who will gain admission if the recommendations associated with community service are implemented. The report states that they want to “reward those who demonstrate true citizenship, deflate undue academic performance pressure and redefine achievement.” But their efforts will mostly result in a mere shift in the pressure or burden on students from academic achievement to “service.” Granted, the authors seem to suggest that even such a superficial change would be beneficial to society, but that (ignoring that this won’t ever replace academic achievement for college admissions) is hardly the type of societal shift that would be meaningful.

In reality, these recommendations, even if partially implemented, are going to lead to really shallow outcomes in terms of service. Take the suggestion that students commit to an activity for at least a year. On its face, that is insulting to those who deeply engage in social activism or organizing. Those who are seriously concerned about the social condition of society, or the environment, or other causes, are able to invest significant time measured in effort per hour invested, in hours invested per week, and in years spanned.

Also, the reality is that rich families and overbearing parents (e.g., helicopter parents, Tiger Moms) will continue to buy experiences for their children or fully execute on them themselves while allowing their children take the credit for such efforts. I have found that some of my wealthier (and more insufferable) former clients unfortunately could not stop themselves from hiring people to do work on behalf of their children just so that their kids could put it on their resume and talk about it in their essays. Nothing that this report offers would alter that reality—it would only lead to more privileged families buying up more opportunities, further squeezing out those who sincerely engaged in issues of broader public concern.

Assessment of Student Contribution:

The second area of focus is intended to help influence college admissions committees on how to assess contributions to society (through public service or service to one’s family), or at least how to couch it so that schools can perpetuate the illusion that they are eager to fill their school with socio-economically and experientially diverse groups.

This section is largely a waste of space. Despite their claims, most colleges have no real interest in forming classes with a socio-economic and ethnic/racial makeup that mirrors broader society or focuses on those least served (a notable exception is Berea College). Most colleges are interested in having more academically “accomplished,” privileged, and wealthier student bodies that are overwhelmingly white, Jewish, and Asian. They will not soon prioritize contributions to one’s family or the burdens a candidate faces in their daily life so that it offsets the tremendous advantages already bestowed upon the privileged.

There is space for students from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder and from more diverse racial and ethnic groups at top colleges, but that space is severely limited. However, obtaining those spots is relatively easy because of the surprising lack of quality competition to acquire them (in terms of desired forms of accomplishment and in terms of number of qualified applicants). Because most of these candidates receive horrible guidance and go to substandard schools, those who understand the admissions process and are able to focus on leading a remarkable life easily stand out to admissions committees that are already starved for candidates who lead remarkable lives. I’ll touch upon how candidates can lead remarkable lives later in the essay.

Reducing Achievement Pressure:
The third area of focus is intended to influence colleges to reduce the emphasis on extracurricular activities, testing, and admissions consulting, or at least how to couch it so that schools can mask what they are looking for as they construct their incoming freshman classes. All five recommendations laid out by the committee in this section warrant discussion.

The first recommendation they offer is to prioritize quality over quantity in terms of extracurricular activities. I agree that schools should do so in their marketing materials and in the layout of their applications. They suggest that schools should encourage students to list only their most meaningful extracurricular activities, but their best suggestion is to limit the space allotted for the listing of extracurricular   activities, which will at least force students to prioritize experiences. However, in terms of assessment, the most selective schools already prioritize quality over quantity, and this is not unknown to knowledgeable parents, guidance counselors, or admission consultants. At Abrome, we discourage clients from participating in experiences in which they are not interested or willing to deeply engage in. We encourage experimenting with experiences to identify what is most meaningful, but shallow engagement is a significant lost investment in terms of opportunity cost. It not only wastes the time spent on less meaningful experiences, but takes away opportunities to more deeply engage in other experiences.

The second and forth recommendations they offer focus on testing. The second recommends reducing the emphasis on AP/IB courses and testing, while the fourth recommends limiting the overwhelming pressure of the SAT or ACT. I fully endorse these recommendations. In fact, with AP courses I encourage clients to take only a few AP courses, and to only take them if they are going to score a 5 (out of 5) on them. Taking fewer AP tests is more easily accomplished by my homeschool clients than it is by my traditional schooled clients, because in traditional schools failing to take AP courses can lead to lower GPAs or signal to colleges an unwillingness to take the most rigorous courses available (an important point that the report fails to address). With regards to the SAT or ACT, I would love to see colleges making these tests optional. The tests have been shown to closely correlate to family wealth, and do not serve as any better of a predictor of future academic success than high school GPAs do. Unfortunately, we won’t see most schools embrace a test optional admissions strategy until the Harvards and Stanfords of higher education do so, or at least until colleges stop participating in college rankings. Short of abolishing the requirement for SAT or ACT scores, schools could take a law school approach to standardized tests. Many law schools discourage multiple sittings of the LSAT, and inform applicants that they will look at all of their scores. In doing so, these schools make clear that multiple LSATs can signal suspect decision making, and that they will not only look at the highest score, but also focus on the lowest score, as well. Unfortunately, many colleges currently tell applicants that they will focus on the best score (i.e., take many tests!), or even accept a candidate’s super score (meaning taking the best score in each section of the SAT or ACT, and ignoring all others).

The third recommendation discourages “overcoaching,” which comes just short of overtly telling applicants not to use admissions consultants. They shy away from suggesting that because they know that that is a surefire way for the report to be reflexively dismissed. The reality is that admissions consultants provide a significant advantage to those who use them because the admissions process is a game. Even if all the other recommendations in the report were embraced, there would still be significant benefits to using admissions consultants (which again benefits those who come from wealthier families). I agree with them, however, “that authenticity, confidence, and honesty are best reflected in the student’s original voice.” My Abrome clients are pushed through many iterations of their essays so that the essays are perfect products that remain theirs. We are explicit in communicating that we are not essay writers, and that we have no interest in writing applications. However, many admissions consultants are eager to provide a service that many wealthy families expect—writing the full application for the applicant. For us, our least successful engagements have been with families who refused to comprehend that the application is not ours, but the applicant’s. The second part of the recommendation is just as useless as the first. They suggest that admissions offices ask applicants to reflect on the ethical challenges they faced during the application process. This becomes akin to the “what are your greatest weaknesses” question in which good applicants spin strengths into a weaknesses. Those who are the least ethical (i.e., who lie or allow others to write their applications) are going to be the ones who are least willing to answer the question honestly.

The fifth recommendation encourages admissions officers and guidance counselors to emphasize that there are many excellent colleges and that students should focus on fit. This is something that admissions officers already spend significant time focusing on (lower ranked schools want to argue that they are just as good for applicants as higher ranked schools, and all schools focus on fit in order to differentiate themselves and to better manage yield). Guidance counselors (and admission consultants), however, could certainly spend more time driving this point home. Unfortunately, guidance counselors and their schools are in many ways judged by the portfolio of colleges and universities their students matriculate into, and the greater the number of students that matriculate into colleges at the top of the US News rankings, the better the counselors and schools look. Top public and private schools with high numbers of academic stars and/or wealthy students already tend to do a great job of pushing many students toward great liberal arts colleges and public ivies (e.g., Berkeley, UVA). As for Abrome, parents often hire us with a single-minded focus on getting their children into Harvard and Stanford, and that is often what we do. But we do so via helping their children lead remarkable lives, and in doing so their children often realize that their dreams are better realized at schools that give them added freedom to create unique opportunities for themselves.

Abrome’s alternative suggestions:

Applicants and their parents should deal in the reality of the admissions process today, and in the admissions processes of the future. Some of the recommendations put forth in the report may be acted upon (although likely only partially, and superficially), but the general application process will always remain one that is easy to game and that is slanted to benefit the privileged.

It’s important for applicants and their parents to not be fooled into thinking that the Harvard report is the new reality in college admissions. The reality of the admissions process that will not change is that it is predicated on a pyramid shaped society. In each high school, there is the general student body that forms the base of the pyramid. These are the low achievers (in an academic achievement sense) and the so-called average achievers who are going to go into the military, trade schools, or local/public schools. On top of that base is a slightly higher performing group that (depending on the socio-economic makeup of the school) is going to be able to go to higher ranked public or private schools. And at the very top of the pyramid are a select group of students that will be celebrated for their academic and extracurricular accomplishments that (depending on the socio-economic makeup of the school) will be in the running for admission into the more exclusive or elite college or universities. The top of the pyramid at a given high school will then compete with those at the top of the pyramids at the ~40,000 other high schools for the limited number of slots in the freshman classes of the various colleges and universities. And the colleges themselves form their own pyramid, with Harvard and Stanford taking pretty much whoever they want; with Yale, Princeton, and MIT taking mostly who they want; and so forth on down through the Ivy League universities, as well as Chicago, Duke, and Cal-Tech; and then further through the top liberal arts colleges and top public universities; and then continuing down through the US News rankings.

However, an outward focus on serving society and a reduced focus on excessive academic accomplishment and extracurricular involvement is in fact already an advantage in the admissions process, if certain benchmarks are met. Abrome focuses on helping young people lead remarkable lives. In doing so, we help them focus on identifying what their unique needs, goals, and interests are, and we help them identify deep, meaningful, and enduring experiences that will help them get there. In order to lead a remarkable life, an Abrome Learner will contribute to society as a means to personally valued achievement. But by focusing on leading a remarkable life, as opposed to engaging in experiences for the benefit of college admissions, it is much more likely that an Abrome Learner will become consumed by their efforts, and contribute to broader society in a meaningful, significant, and impactful way.

Academic achievement by way of testing is currently the expectation and is unlikely to change for any child alive today. We see testing as a required (not necessary) evil that must be taken seriously if a young person cares to attend an elite college or university. However, in agreement with the report’s recommendations, we encourage applicants to take a limited number of tests. But we go further in encouraging them to severely limit the tests they take (because of opportunity cost of time investment), and to only take tests they are going to knock out of the park. For AP tests, that means take one to three of them, but score a 5/5 in each one. For the SAT, take it once or twice, but prepare early enough that you score at least a 1500/1600 (1550+ for HYPSM).

Finally, it is exceedingly difficult to lead a remarkable life and do extremely well in a traditional school. In order for a traditional schooled student to take the most rigorous academic load available (a requirement for applicants to elite colleges without hooks), to be deeply engaged in extracurricular activities, and deeply engaged in community service, they must sacrifice too much in terms of sleep, personal and family relationships, personal development, and mental health. The report touches upon the depression, drug use, and anxiety that currently weighs heavily on high performing students and high schools, but it doesn’t provide recommendations that would effectively undercut those problems. Even if colleges shifted focus from academic and extracurricular performance to public service, as I have previously stated, the burden would still weigh heavily on these students. The reality is that the best hope children have of eliminating the pressures associated with college admissions, as well as academic and extracurricular excellence, is to opt out of the traditional schooling system. Families can do so by homeschooling their children, allowing their children to be unschooled, or sending them to alternative progressive schools with zero testing and zero homework. Preferably, the alternative progressive schools would have zero required classes, as well. At Abrome, we encourage most of our clients to opt out of school because we know that is the best path toward young people leading remarkable lives, and as a nice little benefit, it is also the best path through the college admissions process and into the most exclusive colleges and universities.

 

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