Calm Down About Grades -- Harvard Says College Applicants Should Focus On This

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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It never lets up in parenting, does it? One minute we are potty-training them and the next they’re graduating. And neither is easy. Ask any parent of a high schooler and they’ll probably say that preparing for college is exhausting, both mentally and financially.Are they taking enough AP classes? What about that one B- in Physics? Will that do him in? Should she take both the SAT and ACT? How about test prep classes? Are they necessary? Do they help? Can we afford them?

But, unfortunately, what gets lost in all of this focus on grades and tests and transcripts is this: What kind of people are we raising? Are they good? Kind? Will they contribute to society in a meaningful way or are they just douchebags with straight As?

Well, colleges around the country are (finally) realizing that this last part—a person’s character—should be part of the admission process, just as much as a test score.

A report entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions, was released in January by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In it, lead author Richard Weissbourd highlights many important, yet often overlooked, elements of a student’s college application.

The reports suggests that colleges should be asking if applicants are good citizens and contribute in meaningful ways to their families and to the greater good. Weissbourd and his team suggest that colleges make more room for these pieces of the puzzle—even if it means fewer spaces for AP courses or test scores.

“The admissions process should both clearly signal that concern for others and the common good are highly valued in admissions and describe what kinds of service, contributions and engagement are most likely to lead to responsible work, caring relationships and ethical citizenship,” the report states.

So along with academic achievements, applicants should talk about how they are good citizens—if they volunteer, help at church, babysit younger siblings, or help care for an elderly grandparent. Colleges, this report tells us, should want to know these things. Because merely churning out graduating class after graduating class of overachievers with no concept of philanthropy or family values doesn’t look good for the future of America.

Another element discussed here is that when colleges focus solely on academics, the playing field isn’t fair. Affluent, privileged students are more likely to have the grades and test scores, having come from a place of advantage. But what about John in the next town over? John, who is smart and capable, but rather than join math league, works at a part-time job after school to buy groceries for his family? Doesn’t he deserve the same opportunity? More and more colleges are saying yes.

Weissbourd’s report makes several suggestions of where admissions applications should increase their focus, including the areas of service and responsibility. Students should engage in “meaningful, sustained community service,” the report suggests—involving themselves in projects that last at least a year long. Rather than doing an obligatory hour or two of community work, just to check a college application checklist, Harvard’s report is saying no. Get in there. Get your hands dirty. Get invested and make it mean something to you.

Another suggested change is that applicants “prioritize quality—not quantity—of activities.” This report seeks to change the need many students feel to fill all the blanks. Instead, they say, maybe you only play one sport or join one club. Write about what it meant to you, how you grew as a person, learned to be a leader, and value teamwork and camaraderie.

The key, however, is to get the majority of colleges on board. If most universities remain steadfast in their focus on a laundry list of grades, test scores, and extra-curricular activities, then this new focus on character and citizenship won’t matter. But if schools band together and say “we are all doing this,” the system will work and our society as a whole will benefit.

Since Harvard’s Graduate School of Education generated the report, we can assume Harvard is on board. But according to The Washington Post, so are Yale and the University of Virginia, among others. And hopefully this change in the admission process will continue to spread throughout institutions nationwide.

As a parent who will be entering the minefield of college applications in about seven years, I hope this trend continues. I want my kids to succeed. Be smart. Get the grades and do all of the things. I want their applications stacked with good stuff, I really do.

But they need to be good people more than anything else. They need to care. I don’t give a shit about their AP calculus grade if they don’t help an elderly woman carry her groceries. I don’t care if they score the winning basket and make the play-offs if they aren’t kind to their siblings.

I’m glad colleges are recognizing the importance of citizenship and moral character when they consider applicants—it’s about time.

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