Character and Meaningful Service Will Influence College Admissions, Says Recent Report

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Posted By Eliana Osborn on February 12, 2016 at 2:03 pm
Character and Meaningful Service Will Influence College Admissions, Says Recent Report

You may have an image in your mind of the ideal college application: high test scores, lots of athletics, clubs and leadership galore.  All those things can be part of the package for making a student look good, but there’s a movement afoot to shift the expectation.

The goal is something called ‘ethical engagement.’ Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions is a report out from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.  The idea is that how you serve—or where—is less important than the impact it has on an individual.  In today’s society where young people are often classified as technology-obsessed and narcissistic, TT reflects on all the good that students do.

In college admissions, schools want to choose students who will have the big ideas to make the world a better place through their fields.  The current tendency toward boasting and stacking activities on a resume does little to push students to find a passion and stick to it.

Writing for EdWeek, Richard Weissbourd explains the aims that he and others working on the Turning the Tide report. What’s important is whether students immerse themselves in an experience that is meaningful to them over a sustained period of time, and whether they learn about themselves; the perspectives of others, especially those who are different in background and character; and their responsibilities toward their communities.”

TT echoes a shift in philanthropy worldwide, towards helping others help themselves instead of swooping in and doing for them.  Teamwork, listening, thinking long-term, finding partners, and problem solving are all skills that translate from community service to life success.  TT wants these things to be emphasized by recruiters and admissions officers as the qualities they want in applicants.

Another aspect of Turning the Tide recommendations is to better level the playing field, acknowledging the different experiences of incoming students.  Upper-class whites may be able to travel the world to build schools, but that is no more valuable than an immigrant teen tutoring at his local church.

The TT executive summary begins, “today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good.”  The way college applications work today supports these selfish impulses.  The report lays out goals, already endorsed by more than 75 educational entities, as the way forward.

  1. Meaningful, sustained community service
  2. Collective action that takes on community challenges
  3. Authentic, meaningful experiences with diversity
  4. Service that develops gratitude and a sense of responsibility to the future

What service looks like is different for every student; some may have family obligations, for example, that are as time-consuming as a part-time job.  The idea that there’s more than one way to build your community is a valuable one that may give more students an opportunity to explain what they are doing in their sphere of influence.  Implementation of the TT outlook could help young people focus less on the academic rat race and more on the things that really matter in life, without worrying that their college career will be jeopardized.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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