Harvard Report Proposes College Admissions Policies That Focus Less On Grades

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Posted By Terri Williams on March 17, 2016 at 9:53 am
Harvard Report Proposes College Admissions Policies That Focus Less On Grades

Students who want to gain admission to a good college know that above-average grades, high test scores, and impressive extracurricular activities are usually deciding factors. As a result, they spend their high school years focusing on these three areas. It’s a system that has worked – and worked quite well – for a very long time. But, is it the best way for colleges to select students?

At last count, 85 stakeholders – including representatives from such schools as Harvard, Yale, MIT, Wake Forest, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Brown – believe that these traditional measures may not yield the best results. And they’ve endorsed a recent Harvard University report, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions, which aims to change the college admissions process to focus less on academics and more on meaningful engagement.

The report’s three primary recommendations are as follows:

  • Encourage community service and meaningful contributions for the public good
  • Measure ethical engagement and contributions in ways that reflect differences in race, class, and culture
  • Reassess the definition of achievement in ways that both level the playing field and reduce the current level of academic pressure

But what does that look like? These are some practical examples from the report:

  • Students should engage in the type of community service work that matches their passions and interests and increases their emotional and ethical awareness.
  • Students should participate in collective activities that address community-wide problems – such as anti-bullying and environmental degradation.
  • Students should participate in activities that foster a sense of gratitude regarding the contributions of past generations, and a sense of responsibility for the future.
  • Students should get “credit” for taking care of younger siblings, working to contribute to the family’s income, and performing major household duties.
  • Students should not feel they have to create a “brag sheet” of extracurricular activities.
  • Students should focus more on marked achievement in a small number of AP or IB classes instead of simply taking a lot of these classes.
  • Students should thrive for authenticity instead of being “coached” in their application responses.
  • Students and their families should evaluate whether a college is a good fit instead of concentrating on the status of the university. They should also understand that there are more than just of handful of “good” colleges.

Are K-12 Schools ready for the shift in college admissions?

Clearly, most of the work involved, to transition to the type of admissions process recommended in the report, is in the hands of educators at the elementary and high school level. Steve Piltch is Head of School at The Shipley School, a pre-K through 12 independent, coeducational day school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Shipley promotes an environment that promotes creativity and curiosity, values intellectual effort, and encourages moral integrity and concern for the community.

Since the school is already well on its way to preparing students to meet many of the admission criteria recommended in the report, GoodCall asked Piltch to share his thoughts.

He thinks that the college admissions process should definitely place more value on social and emotional skills because students need these types of skills to succeed in life – and to be happy in life. “Admittedly, these attributes are tricky to measure, and it’s difficult to assign a rating in a column or box; on the other hand, numbers, rankings and standardized test scores, although easy to measure, reveal only a small glimpse of someone’s accomplishments, and there’s much more to telling the story of an entire person.”

While a rigorous academic program is important, Piltch says schools must foster relationships with their students, in addition to challenging them and helping them to develop confidence. It’s imperative that students develop socially, emotionally, and ethically, says Piltch. And, Shipley also has a college counseling process in which juniors and seniors do a two-year self-evaluation to discover and nurture their strengths, goals, and interests.

In addition, the school has service-learning programs that encourage students to contribute to the community. If schools do their job well, “Students become good people, so that their conscience – not their resume – reflects a well-balanced, kind and compassionate citizen ready to serve the world around them,” says Piltch.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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