Thanks to the work of a handful of researchers, educators, and clinicians like Carol Dweck, Denise Pope, and Madeline Levine, parents these days not only are more aware of the tremendous damage that these pressures cause but also have access to research-based strategies that have been found to foster happiness AND success in their kids. However this grass-roots approach has its challenges as parents continue to worry about how their kids will compare to the brag sheets of Tiger Moms’ cubs in the college admissions process.
So, for the first time, a broad coalition of colleges and universities has joined forces in a unified effort to call for widespread, top-down change in the admissions process. Published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the report entitled, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions includes recommendations from many of the “golden ticket colleges” and aims to address not only the overwhelming academic pressures that students feel but also the emphasis on personal achievement over good citizenship and the uneven opportunities available to students of diverse backgrounds.
The report states:
...we are keenly aware that reforming college admissions is only one piece of a far larger challenge. Ultimately, we cannot bring about a sea change in the messages our culture sends to young people unless educational institutions at every level elevate and embody a healthier set of values. While this change needs to start or accelerate from multiple points, we view our recommendations as one powerful place to begin. In the face of deeply troubling trends that only seem to be worsening, it is time to say “Enough.”
- Focusing on meaningful, sustained community service: Students should engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen, meaning they emerge from their particular passions and interests. In addition, what counts is not whether the service occurred locally or in an exotic location but whether the students immersed themselves in that experience. At least a year of sustained service is recommended.
- Contributions to one’s family: Not only is community engagement highly valued but the contributions to family (such as taking care of family members, household duties, and contributing to the household income) are very important as well. Too often there is a perception that high-profile, short-term service is more highly regarded than significant ongoing contributions to the family. Applicants should be given ample opportunity to highlight these contributions.
- Assessing students’ daily awareness of and contributions to others: The admissions process should seek to assess whether students are ethically responsible and concerned for others in their communities in their daily lives. Students’ day-to-day conduct should be emphasized more than short stints of service.
- Prioritizing quality not quantity of activities: Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities and should discourage students from reporting activities that have not been meaningful to them. Also, students should be encouraged to focus on the depth of their intellectual or ethical engagement, and the potential benefit of activities they found meaningful.
- Discouraging “overcoaching”: Admissions offices should warn parents and students that applications that are “overcoached” can jeopardize desired admission outcomes. Authenticity, confidence and honesty are best reflected in the student’s own voice and they should be encouraged to reflect on the ethical challenges they faced during the application process.
(See pages 3-5 of the report for a full list of recommendations)
These recommendations are closely aligned to strategies that we already know foster happiness and success. People that report greater or more frequent experiences of authenticity, altruism, community engagement, gratitude, autonomy, and compassion also tend to be happier and less stressed. These are all, in fact, forms of connection.
In sum, this report is telling us that when a student focuses on connecting in the different parts of their life (self, other and community) rather than simply achieving or checking a box, that is when admissions officers are able to connect with the student.
It behooves us as parents then to simply honor our kids’ interests and compassion for others. To foster their curiosity and to explore how they can apply those interests and passions to making their families, their communities and their world a better place.