college admissions

In today’s entry, we continue the conversation between Ian Fisher and Elyse Krantz on the Turning the Tide report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can re-read part one on our blog here, and if you’re interested in further conversation, you can explore the archives of our Getting Inradio show to hear more from Ian, Elyse, and Elizabeth Heaton, on the impact of the report.

Ian Fisher: Interesting to see you highlight community service first, because that’s the one that stood out to me. Nearly one year ago, I wrote an article for this blog titled “Colleges Don’t Care About Community Service.” I felt pretty good about that declaration because nothing I had ever seen from college admissions suggested that there was something special about community service within the full suite of extra-curricular activities. At a glance, this seems like a departure from that position.

But I’m not so convinced. The report also argues students can fulfill this ideal through “community engagement,” e.g. “working in groups on community problems, whether the problem is a local park that is dangerous, bullying in their schools or communities, a high teen pregnancy rate or some form of environmental degradation.” This kind of engagement might be satisfied by more traditional school clubs like the GSA, the Black Student Union, the Recycling Club, or Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).

For me, the big takeaway from this recommendation is that students should first broadly define their community (family? school? city? cultural group? state?) and then identify the best way to get personally involved in improving one element of that community. And like you say, that requires some thought about what a student’s interests and values are; which I think is  precisely the point of this report. Colleges are hoping that students will use their high school years as an opportunity to reflect on what they care about and how they can impact the world.

Does that summary of the report sit well with you, or do you see this report as aiming at some other objectives (implicit or explicit)?

Elyse Krantz: Absolutely. The authors of the report, as well as the 80+ individuals who have formally endorsed its general message, genuinely wish that more high school students would step out of their comfort zones and look beyond traditional measures of success and achievement. What better way to realize personal growth in high school than to support the greater good and create a lasting impact in one’s community?

And it’s wonderful, too, that this “Making Caring Common” project acknowledges emotional wellbeing as a key motivation behind their recommendations. In recent years there has been a marked uptick in reports surrounding student depression and stress at both the high school and college level. As the frenzy to gain entrance into an elite college is at an all-time high, acceptance rates at these institutions continues to plummet, leaving many high achieving students wondering if it’s physically and emotionally possible to push themselves harder.

I worry that some families will read this report and think, “Great – now Jane has to volunteer even more to stand out at the Ivies.” I also worry that other families will review these recommendations and falsely assume that their service-oriented child with straight Bs and modest testing will be a shoe-in for Harvard. They won’t. Last month, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons told the Harvard Crimson that he doesn’t support the report’s suggestion that students limit their number of AP classes. And despite the report’s recommendation that colleges consider eliminating their SAT/ACT requirements, Dean Fitzsimmons firmly believes that standardized tests are a useful way to measure students’ “academic excellence.”

In the admissions game, grades come (and have always come) first; but if you’re a student who is drawn to this notion of “giving back,” and you’d like to immerse yourself in community service, take on a community challenge, or authentically experience diversity, get out there and do it. Not for the sake of colleges, but for yourself.

For more on this topic, catch the Turning the Tide segment on this episode of Getting In: A College Coach Conversation.


Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.