Admissions Anxiety Addressed by Harvard Initiative

In this country, almost every teenager thinking of going to college faces the application  process with excitement…but also with dread. Applications, after all, are impossibly complicated and criteria for acceptance impossibly daunting, especially for the more selective colleges and universities. To say that the competition is fierce—and probably unfair—hardly does it justice, and at bottom, you have to wonder what kind of a message this process is sending to young people about the mission of education. As the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni noted recently, “…(it) warps the values of students drawn into a competitive frenzy. It jeopardizes their mental health. And it fails to include—and identify the potential—in enough kids from less privileged backgrounds.”

That’s why I was so pleased to see a report out of Harvard last month calling for a dramatic shift in the application process—a shift that emphasizes the values of good citizenship rather than personal achievement. The report, called “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” was designed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has been endorsed by 85 stakeholders in higher education, presidents, admissions officers, deans, professors and high school counselors. The author of the report was motivated, at least in part, by research he had conducted in which he asked 10,000 middle and high school students what mattered most: high individual achievement, happiness, or caring for others. Only 22 percent said caring for others.

The new report examines how the current application process contributes to that outcome, with its overemphasis on SAT scores, excessive AP classes and long lists of extracurricular and volunteer activities—what the author calls “brag sheets.” According to the report, the admissions process also needs to redefine achievement in ways that create “greater equity and access for economically diverse students.” Among its recommendations is that colleges should prioritize quality—rather than quantity—of extracurricular and volunteer activities, and that those activities demonstrate authentic and sustained engagement. I was especially pleased to see the report’s strong emphasis on the high value that should be placed on students’ contributions to their households: caring for siblings or sick relatives, for instance, or working to help support the family.

This not only helps to level the playing field for students from less affluent families but it also speaks well and loudly to a student’s character. The report recommends that colleges discourage students from “overloading” on AP courses and warns students, parents, and high school counselors that colleges are more and more alert to “coached” applications that do not reflect the student’s authentic voice. SAT and ACT scores are also targeted with recommendations that they become optional and that colleges describe clearly how they are related to academic performance at their institutions. In effect, the recommendations are designed to make the admissions process “more humane, less super-human,” to quote The Washington Post.

Now, as you know, reports on education are issued by the dozens every year. What encourages me about this one is that it was spearheaded, conducted, and enthusiastically endorsed by Harvard, which is one of the country’s most elite, most selective colleges with over 37,000 applicants for fewer than 2000 seats in its freshman class. It has been equally enthusiastically endorsed by many other elite institutions, such as MIT, Yale, the University of Michigan, and a growing list of others, some of which have already instituted some of the recommendations.

So what does it mean for FIT? FIT is selective in its own way. But this is not a traditional liberal arts college and although we have very high standards, our approach to admissions is very different. Since students are admitted into a major, they are evaluated on the basis of qualities such as focus and drive and, indeed, character—qualities that are reflected in a student’s essay, for instance, just as design talent can be demonstrated in a portfolio. A student’s academic record is important, of course, but we are generally unimpressed by a long list of AP courses. Moreover, SAT and ACT tests are not required of the general student population, and if students provide them, they are used for English and math placement purposes only. I don’t mean to say that prospective students don’t feel pressure when they apply—of course they do. And to some degree they should because it only reflects how much they care. But our bottom line is the question we always ask regarding every applicant: can this student succeed here? And I think that helps keep our process “more humane.”

My hope is that the excitement this report has generated among admissions officers and other higher education officials keeps building, that its influence spreads. and that its recommendations are widely adopted. What a difference that could make in the lives of students starting their college preparations. And perhaps, if the author of the report is right, our future college applicants will find “caring for others” more important than “high individual achievement.”

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