Harvard Turning the Tide: Chooses Kindness over Grades and Test Scores


With a vision to make the college admissions process more humane, the Harvard Graduate School of Education has released a new report — titled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions — recommending placing more emphasis on kindness and community involvement than on grades, test scores, or AP coursework.

The report — endorsed by admissions deans and professors from more than 100 top colleges and universities across the United States including those from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Brown — outlines three of the most intractable challenges facing college applicants, as well as offers recommendations for reshaping the college admissions process.

Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-director of the Making Caring Common Project, remarked:

“Too often, today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good. As a rite of passage, college admissions play a powerful role in shaping student attitudes and behaviors. Admissions deans are stepping up collectively to underscore the importance of meaningful engagement in communities and greater equity for economically diverse students.”  

The report focuses on reducing excessive academic achievement pressure, promoting community service and greater ethical engagement among aspiring students, and leveling the playing field for economically disadvantaged students.

In order to turn the tide, the report recommends revising essay questions and marketing materials; developing gratitude and a sense of responsibility; placing a high value on a student’s contributions to one’s family; discouraging over-coaching; encouraging students to take on a local community project; creating scholarship and high school programs focused on community engagement and caring for others; and challenging the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success.

Kedra Ishop, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Michigan, noted:

“Escalating achievement pressure is not healthy for our youth. Young people are suffering from higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse as they juggle the demands of their lives. Many students, especially those from low-income families, are often discouraged due to limited access to the resources perceived as necessary for selective college admissions. 

“It’s a double-edged sword. Turning the Tide offers recommendations to tackle both of these issues simultaneously by promoting the quality of academic engagement over the quantity of achievements in college admissions.”

Are the goals of Turning the Tide realistic?  While Yale is adding an essay question on their 2017 applications asking applicants “to reflect on engagement with and contribution to their family, community, and/or the public good”, Harvard dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid William Fitzsimmons acknowledges that Harvard would not be foregoing standardized tests in its application process. Nonetheless, lead report author and Harvard senior lecturer Richard Weissbourd is optimistic. He told NBC News:

Turning the Tide’s recommendations are attainable — but it will take a shift in perspective from colleges, parents, and students.  In the big picture here, we are trying to tell kids to lead more balanced lives. There are some kids who are going to be deeply involved in sports or the arts, and that can count as community engagement, if kids can describe on an application what they are learning about teamwork and community as part of those experiences. What matters less are brief stints of service rather than the kind of person you are in your community and your school every day.”

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