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Report urges colleges: Less stress on scores, more on service

The Harvard Graduate School of Education's report on

The Harvard Graduate School of Education's report on college admissions seeks in part to address pressures in the admissions process. Credit: Harvard Graduate School of Education

Local educators who praised a recent report calling for admissions policies that promote sustained community service and academic focus, with less stress over scores and padded resumes, say they will wait to see if the dozens of colleges that endorsed the report actually adopt the recommendations.

As anxious high school seniors await college admissions decisions — many of which will be released April 1 — those who helped guide them said they would welcome changes that encourage more authentic educational engagement.

“Knowing colleges are going in the direction of looking for quality over quantity and for more authentic community service” would take some pressure off students, said Michelle Villa, assistant principal at Locust Valley High School, who oversees the school’s guidance department. “Oftentimes our students are doing things because they think it’s what admissions counselors want to see instead of doing what they really care about.”

The report, titled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” recommends that students should be discouraged from taking standardized college admissions tests more than twice. Other recommendations include encouraging sustained community service of at least a year and creating more access to economically diverse students by making it clear that work and family commitments are valued as well as community service.

Colleges also should consider making the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the ACT optional and clarify how much weight they have in the admissions process, the report said.

“Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas,” the report said, adding students shouldn’t feel pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities.

The report, which was produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s project Making Caring Common, was based on discussions with a wide range of educators, admissions deans and counselors among others. More than 80 educational organizations, including dozens of colleges and universities endorsed its recommendations.

“I think it’s a great message and I would love to see admissions shift in that direction,” said Greg Wasserman, director of guidance at The Wheatley School in Old Westbury. “I’m just a little more cynical about it all. There is a numbers component that is hard for the colleges . . . looking to advance the reputation of the college to get away from.”

He said that he and other members of the National Association of College Admission Counseling would look for clear guidance from colleges that they “are standing behind the philosophy of the report. . . . or will they say, ‘The curriculum the student took lacks rigor’ when it comes time to make a decision for a college applicant.”

The report’s authors said their work grew out of a concern that students and parents were getting the message that individual achievements counted far more than community involvement or care for others, with a resulting stressful focus on test scores, heavy course loads, and extracurriculars.

The project’s sponsors say they will work with high schools, colleges, parents and other educational groups over the next two years to more widely implement the recommendations.

Villa believes that transcripts and a student’s academic record would always be key to an application, but, she said, “Challenge yourself but take what you can handle. What are your passions? What can you handle? Then we create a list of school with reach, target and safeties, but it has to start with their passions and capabilities.”

Wasserman questioned to what extent elite colleges and universities could de-emphasize scores and grades.

“They are first and foremost admitting them to be students and to function as students,” he said. “This is a big shift in the admission landscape. If they are 100 percent supportive, and are standing behind the philosophy of the report, that’s great, but the colleges really need to state that pretty firmly and clearly on their website, and in communications and workshops they give to the counselors so we can support the kids.”

Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and one of those who endorsed the report, said he didn’t think it did in fact represent a huge shift for his institution.

“I don’t view this as a change in values but as an affirmation of values. These are things we’ve been talking about in the Yale community for years now,” he said. “Of course we want students who are achieving in and out of the classroom but we are also interested in students who are engaging intellectually with their community.”

Part of the problem, said one consultant to families going through the college admission process, is convincing students, parents and even high schools that colleges really do value service and focus.

“I do think that that’s what colleges have been saying, and we’re trying to get the word out to our local families,” said Jan Esposito, of Commack, who, with her husband, Tony, counsels families on college admissions and financial aid. “I think students will still have to take a rigorous curriculum, but they also have to look at what they can really handle emotionally or academically and if it takes away from getting involved in community activities.”

Stacy Rovner, of Greenvale, for example, said her daughter Carly opted not to take the honors calculus class this year “because it would have put her over the edge,” in an already heavy schedule of courses and after school extracurricular activities that meant doing homework late into the night. While the North Shore High School senior was accepted at her top college choice and chose activities she enjoyed doing, Rovner said, “It is a stressful process.”

The report’s recommendations sounded like good ones to Mary Jones, superintendent of schools in Wyandanch, but she said concern over creating more access for economically diverse students should begin earlier than college admission time.

“I’m more concerned with providing us the resources to teach and prepare our children so they can be more competitive in getting into those universities,” she said, calling for “changing the formula so we can bring in the expertise to our schools and teach our children as well as other districts” as well as fund after-school programs for children of working parents. Expanding access to higher education for less economically advantaged students also found favor with Gerilyn Smith, director of student services for the William Floyd School District, who said the recommendations were sound but that she would wait to hear from colleges before changing their college preparation advice.

“The well-rounded student is extremely desirable in the admissions process, but overachievers sometimes place too much pressure on themselves by taking on more than they are able to handle,” she said. “If applications were to underscore the importance of quality [over quantity], it would go a long way toward leveling the playing field for economically diverse students.”

And weighing the value of family obligations in college applications “would help those coming from challenging circumstances,” she said.

Rodney Morrison, associate provost for enrollment and retention management at Stony Brook University, said, unlike the most selective colleges, a large public institution like Stony Brook attracts applications from students with widely varied academic records.

“Our first cut is making sure the student can handle the academic course load by evaluating how they’ve done over the four years of high school,” he said.

As for the other issues discussed in the report, he said, “There’s nothing really new. We’ve been talking about it for years.”


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