Editor’s Note: This is an opinion piece from one of our educators. We will be following up this piece with a more detailed and nuanced breakdown of the report discussed here, Turning the Tide.
On January 20, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a new report on the state of college admissions that was endorsed by senior admissions staff and deans from schools all over the country, including those from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Brown. Titled Turning the Tide, the report outlines specific challenges to college admissions offices, encouraging them to find ways to relieve the pressure of the college admissions arms race and support better, more conscientious students nationwide. While the core values of the report are clear, well-articulated, and of critical importance, as a former admissions professional and College Coach educator, it’s hard for me to see the ways that this report will create meaningful change for college-bound high school students nationwide.
I highly recommend reading the report, if you can set aside about 10 to 20 minutes to do so. It’s only a few pages in total, and the ideas within it are terrific. It explicitly endorses some of the things that good college counselors have been doing for decades, like “Expanding Students’ Thinking about ‘Good’ Colleges.” If you’ve ever been to a presentation hosted by Colleges That Change Lives, for example, this bit of advice is nothing new to you. Similarly, the prioritization of “quality—not quantity—of activities” is a mantra that I reiterate on a daily basis with families from all over the country, encouraging them to focus on a handful of activities that will bring meaning to a student’s life, rather than spreading a student thin across dozens of clubs and organizations.
In a conversation with a new family just last night, I was asked “what activities are best for getting into the most selective schools?” and without skipping a beat I turned to the freshman across my desk and said, “I want you to engage in the things you love to do—to spend the time on things you’re good at, where you are excited and stimulated by your curiosity. That’s what colleges are looking for, certainly. But more importantly, it’s what will make your high school experience meaningful.” Not every educational consultant would give this advice to a nervous family, and that’s what gives rise to the writers’ worries about “over-coaching” in the report.
There are professionals out there who are undoubtedly “over-coaching” students, and they take advantage of those who don’t know better. Take it from me: if someone tells you there’s a magic formula to getting into a top school, that person is lying to you. The best educational consultants and college counselors are focused on helping the student be the best they can be, not on forcing them into a box that will never fit.
The Importance of Transparency
The reason a report like this gains traction is the same reason that college admissions is one of the leading causes of stress among high schoolers and their parents: to untrained eyes, the college admissions process is opaque at best, hopelessly muddled at worst. There is a universal best answer to the question, “should I get an A in the regular course or a B in the honors course,” and yet I get that same question at least four times a week. From my team’s experience making decisions in admissions committees, we much prefer to see a student earn a B in an AP course than an A in a standard course.
Journalist Frank Bruni, who has spent months, if not years, researching this phenomenon, believes that deemphasizing AP coursework will advantage poorer students at schools that don’t offer AP classes. But those of us in admissions know that colleges do not expect AP coursework from students at schools that don’t offer them. Colleges always consider students within the context of their high school offerings, so the benefit he sees from this “revolution” is really already a part of admissions at the vast majority of colleges nationwide.
The issue in both these cases is transparency and clarity. Colleges could do more to help students understand the process, from thresholds for academic rigor to expectations from extracurricular activities and the importance of community service. What I love most about my work at College Coach is the opportunity to clarify a process that is needlessly, frustratingly opaque.
Turning the Tide
At the heart of this report is good intent, I truly believe that. But the cynic in me also believes that elite schools will continue to admit the same students they’ve always admitted: the ones with distinguishing excellence in the classroom, the community, and on the athletic field; the ones with stellar testing, rigorous curricula, and flawless marks; the ones who do nearly everything right with nary a misstep. This report feels like their way of telling the also-rans that they should throttle down a little—that they don’t really have a shot of getting in and that the point of high school ought not to be to get into college, but to enjoy the experience itself.
The second half of that idea is something I gladly support both as a counselor and a parent. Getting into college cannot be treated as an end in itself. It cannot. It must be seen as an opportunity to present your best self—your accomplishments, your dreams, your dispositions, your potential—to institutions that can take you on the next step in your academic and personal journey. In order to truly turn the tide, we need to begin to think about the entire college application process as an opportunity for growth, reflection, and active thinking. As long as colleges continue to practically evaluate their applicants the way they always have, irrespective of good-hearted declarations like this report, the tides will continue to roll in and out as they always have.