Questions and Answers About “Turning the Tide”: Advice for College Applicants

The Making Caring Common Project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently issued Turning the Tide,” the first in a series of reports with the ambitious goal of “inspiring concern for others and the common good through college admissions.” Admissions deans from many of the country’s most selective colleges, including the Ivies, have signed on. We agree with several of the report’s key recommendations, and we’ve explained our prediction that the report will not substantially change the admissions process overall. Here we’d like to address the concerns the report may raise for current high school students as they prepare to apply for college.

Is community service required? Many students and families wonder if community service is required for college admission, and the report reinforces this concern. Should all high school students who aspire to selective colleges devote themselves to community service at the expense of other interests, such as athletics or the arts?

No. As we’ve written previously, colleges already value community service. But they also value other factors, with academic achievement the most important. From the perspective of each college, the admissions process builds a class. The class will have diverse components, responding to institutional mission, values and needs. While students who have engaged in community service as a primary extracurricular activity are valued, so are those who have devoted themselves to other pursuits.

High school students are already overburdened and stressed; a perceived need to engage in community service when a student is already engaged in other time-consuming, personally rewarding and enjoyable activities only makes matters worse and undermines one of the report’s recommendations: prioritizing quality over quantity of activities. We continue to advise students to explore a range of activities early in high school and then work toward mastery and leadership in their favorites.

If you are motivated to participate in community service, by all means do so. Make sure your participation is meaningful, long-term and authentic, not superficial and brief. A summer spent volunteering at a local social service agency is more significant than a week spent in a developing country. Such engagement will be an asset to your applications, but participation in other activities is an asset as well. In fact, many clubs and teams that are not focused on community service provide opportunities for such service.

What about my essays? Many colleges already strive to assess applicants’ ethical engagement and do so effectively through recommendations and essays. Some colleges, such as Brown and Michigan, ask students to describe a community they belong to and their role in it, explicitly inviting answers that speak to empathy and concern for others. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, colleges including MIT and University of Rochester are adding similar questions in response to “Turning the Tide.” Some essay prompts in the Common Application tend to elicit responses that address ethical engagement and concern for others.

In our experience, most students – regardless of socioeconomic background, race, academic achievement, or learning differences – naturally write essays that describe meaningful interactions with others and thoughtfully reflect on those interactions. Even if you have not participated in community service, you can demonstrate “concern for others and the common good” through your essays, drawing on personal experiences with teams, clubs, religious organizations, or your family.

How many AP classes should I take? “Turning the Tide” cautions against overloading on AP and IB courses but acknowledges that taking a full slate of such courses may be appropriate for some students. Our advice remains the same: take the most rigorous course load you can handle. Academic achievement will continue to be the single most important factor in selective college admissions, and the best evidence of this achievement is your high school transcript.

While we agree that pressure to take large numbers of AP courses adds to stress and pressure for high school students, the only effective way to limit this is for high schools to restrict the number of AP courses students are allowed to take. If a high school allows unlimited access to AP courses, some students will take the maximum number they can schedule. Students who do so and excel are more likely to be admitted to selective colleges. Unless there is an extreme culture shift, this will continue to be so.

What is a “good college”? This is the most compelling advice in “Turning the Tide”: students and families need to broaden their idea of what constitutes a “good college.” Very few college students attend the Ivies and comparable institutions; the vast majority attend public colleges, many of which provide an excellent education at a reasonable price. Applicants need to have realistic expectations of their admission prospects and to realize that wonderful opportunities, experiences and long-term benefits can be gained at many colleges. Prestige and name brand recognition should not be the most important factors in the college application process; rather, focus on finding a good fit, where you can grow and thrive.

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