A few weeks ago, I sat in a high school auditorium with a hundred other parents and listened while guidance counselors gently, sometimes haltingly, listed the state requirements for graduation for the incoming freshmen, our children, the Class of 2020. They then went on to cite a dozen alternative paths that ranged from vocational to college prep to state-sponsored scholarships. With each progression, the stakes grew higher and the list grew longer: AP and honors classes, foreign language requirements, dual enrollment with the local community college, virtual school supplementation.
Still, I knew that for a portion of the students in the audience, even the longest list of requirements they showed us did not cover the number of courses they might take, probably while juggling intense work, research, sports, or arts practices or schedules, all in the hopes of getting in to the colleges of their dreams.
After the presentation, I wandered around the school’s curriculum fair, surrounded by parents and their children whose wide eyes betrayed them: they were overwhelmed, almost paralyzed by the onslaught of information and choices and decisions in front of them. I couldn’t blame them. It felt like we were all being asked to declare what our 8th graders’ futures would be by deciding whether they would take regular or AP biology at the age of 14.
My husband and I were college classmates at an Ivy League university, one that we both still dearly love. We met our best friends and each other there, and we found our experiences both valuable and formative. So of course, when we started having children, we had ivy-covered stars in our eyes and dreams that we could give our children the same experiences we had. But as the years have gone on, my dreams for my children have evolved.
As an alumni interviewer for my alma mater and a friend to many families who have gone through the college admissions process, I have watched too many high school students bend, if not break, under the pressure of the grueling exercise. They don’t just take nine AP classes in their high school careers; they take 20, and they fit them in while pursuing research opportunities, oratory contests, volunteer work, religious school, and Mu Alpha Theta competitions. One child I interviewed this year regularly took Uber to his sports practices because he shared a car with his siblings and his parents were at work.
Now acutely aware that I only have my oldest son at home for another four short years, my new dream for him is to find a balance between achievement, personal growth that I hope includes compassion and empathy and an awareness of his own dumb luck, and the uniquely poignant experience of being a teenager.
A few months ago, in a new report produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions,” lead author Richard Weissbourd and his colleagues advocated changes to the college admissions process that might both relieve some of the intense pressure on college applicants and finally send the message to students and – the harder sell, to their parents – that meaningful community and intellectual engagement and an interest in the public good could be as important and valuable in college admissions as a high SAT score or a transcript full of AP classes.
When the report came out, it was all over my Facebook feed. Was this a true sea change for college admissions? Could we really transform a culture driven by insane high school workloads, high stakes standardized tests, and the nagging suspicion that only finding a new element on the periodic table might be enough to get a kid into college?
Knowing what I do from my experiences interviewing high school students, I was dubious. Then this Harvard Crimson article seemed to confirm my concerns: Harvard’s own undergraduate dean of admissions, William R. Fitzsimmons, acknowledged that though he might add questions to the Harvard application regarding community engagement, Harvard would continue to leave the rest of the application process as is.
In an interview for my story about the report for the College Gameplansection of NBC News, Katie Fretwell, dean of undergraduate admissions at Amherst College, echoed Fitzsimmons when she told me that Amherst, too, would mostly continue business as usual, even though she too very much endorsed the report. “But we’re trying not to encourage kids to do things for appearance’s sake,” she explained, adding that in addition to standardized test scores and a rigorous course load, Amherst’s holistic application review values quality over quantity when it comes to extracurricular activities and substance and depth when it comes to volunteer work. How do admissions offices determine authenticity in students’ service experiences? “A commitment over time,” she said simply. “Longevity matters.”
Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, also agreed: “Yes, we want students who have achieved in and out of the classroom, but we are also looking for things that are harder to quantify: authentic intellectual engagement, a concern for others and the common good. We often talk in the Yale admissions committee room about the prevalence of something we call ‘otherness’ while reviewing a student’s application,” he told me.
When I contacted Weissbourd, who is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the co-director of Making Caring Common, I had a lot of questions – and, admittedly, a lot of skepticism. I worried, as did many of my friends with high school age kids, that this would become just one more burden on high school kids to bear, one more box to check. “Meaningful community engagement” would not inspire kids to be kind, I thought, it would just be another system to game. As my friend Susana MacLean, a mother of two in suburban New Jersey, lamented, “My daughter is a junior who is taking 10 honors and nine AP courses in high school in addition to playing soccer and being a leader in fencing and on the Science Olympiad team. She is already stretched to the limit. She has no free time and she is sleep-deprived and exhausted.
“She is a very nice kid. She helps friends with their math and physics homework. She teaches her little brother how to build robots. She is a good friend and a wonderful daughter. But if colleges now want to see ‘evidence’ that she is a kind person, is she supposed to take on a community service project on top of everything else? What is she supposed to stop doing in order to fit charitable work into a 24-hour day? Should she take less-challenging courses, even though she loves the more rigorous classes? Should she drop one of the activities she enjoys and is good at? Should she stop sleeping altogether?”
Weissbourd told me that the goals of the report are realistic and that true change can come from it, but it will only come if parents and students themselves “turn a corner.”
Along with the report’s recommendations to avoid “overcoaching” students for college as if it is a game to win, to take the SAT or ACT no more than twice, to explore fewer activities but with deeper commitment and engagement, and to limit the number of AP and IB courses in a student’s courseload, Weissbourd believes that even more of the crucial work in changing the grueling culture of college admissions will have to come from inside the applicants’ homes, not in the ivory towers of the Ivy League.
Weissbourd said, “This is complicated stuff. With my own kids, I had to sort out my own status concerns, my own fears about competition with other parents or the fears that I was failing my kids if they were in five activities instead of eight, or I was cheating my kids if they weren’t getting SAT tutors when they were freshmen in high school. There is a contagion of fear out there that may actually be contrary to parents’ values, and you have to honor your values. There are people succeeding in every profession who did not attend these elite schools.”
Who is the best student in class? Depends on whom you ask.
Life is longer than the road to college, and as Weissbourd points out, there are many great colleges available to students today that are not in the category of elite schools like Harvard. For a certain portion of students, those elite schools – and the workload that comes with applying to them – will be appropriate. Some children actually thrive taking the most challenging courses they can tackle, pursuing independent research projects, and committing to sports, arts, or other activities that they truly love. For them, “community engagement” might mean volunteer work, or it might mean just looking at those sports or arts differently: as ways to connect with their communities in a meaningful way.
For other students, those workloads and schedules will not be appropriate; they won’t thrive under those conditions. But they can still look at their activities and pursuits as chances to dive deeper into their communities and do more for the public good, as the “Turning the Tides” report recommends. Those students will still have access to great classes, great professors, and great campuses – they just might not be Harvard.
Weissbourd says that could actually be better for the students. “Sending your kids to elite colleges doesn’t always mean expanding their options,” he says. “You can also be constricting their options, because then they think if they want to be a teacher or a firefighter or a carpenter, it’s not in the cards for them.”
To be clear, none of the recommendations in the report are new values for colleges admissions. Even the most elite schools have always favored depth over breadth and quality over quantity, whether in courses or extracurricular activities. They have always appreciated demonstrations of kindness and empathy and deeper, sustained commitments to service have always held more weight in admissions than one-off stints or expensive missionary trips. This is not actually news. What is news is that colleges are saying it loud and clear through this report, trying to convey to parents that yes, they mean it: who your kid is every day of the week is important. Your kid is more than a test score or their grades. Your kid is also more than the name of the college he or she will attend.
My own oldest child is registering for high school next week as I write this. As someone who was always internally driven not just to achieve but to overachieve, this has presented one of my biggest challenges in my parenting: how to let my son be who he is and to show me his own path to college and beyond. My natural instinct is to push him, just because that’s my natural instinct in general. Luckily for both him and me, I have been able to get over myself.
The true way to relieve the crushing pressure of college admissions has been within our power all along: we must do the work on ourselves as parents and to follow our kids’ leads while we gently guide and support them – not to get them into a good college, but to get them to be good people. Let them learn to steer their own ships, and they will be prepared for wherever the tide takes them.