Understanding Harvard’s “Turning the Tide” Report

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Harvard College Admissions ReportNew Harvard Report Offers Suggestions On How Schools Can Improve the College Admissions Process

The higher education industry was abuzz yesterday with the announcement of a new report released by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, called “Turning the Tide,” that highlights how colleges can change the admissions process by focusing more on community service and reducing the stress that comes with students padding their resumes with multiple extracurricular activities, AP courses, and excessive test prep. This report was endorsed by dozens of higher education institutions, including admissions officials from MIT and Yale, among others.

This report comes after another grueling admissions season, with many elite colleges reporting record high number of applications for the class of 2020. It also comes not too long after the formation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (CAAS) and the announcement of its planned application platform that also aims to level the admissions playing field for low-income students. The CAAS also endorses Harvard’s report.

So what’s in the report, exactly? It begins by highlighting the pressure that many students are under when applying to college – do I have the right classes? The right activities? Am I impressive enough? It then offers recommendations on how to promote community service and engagement, how to assess students’ engagement that might not fit perfectly into an “extracurricular” box, and how to level the academic playing field for students who might not have as much access to advanced courses and test prep.

Here are the recommendations offered by the report, and what it means for students applying to college.

Meaningful, sustained community service.

“We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen—that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests—that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults. We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement. This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income.”

We’ve been telling families this for years – students need to find community service opportunities that really match their interests and make an impact! It’s about quality, not quantity. Making an impact in your local community is not only rewarding, but much more authentic and easier to accomplish than quick service trips to exotic locations where you don’t have as much time to really make an impact.

What this means for students: We always encourage students to start identifying and focusing areas of interest, including community service, early in freshman and sophomore year. Students need to explore different service projects and find the one that really speaks to them. Get involved and stay involved! Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and get creative. Find a service project you’re really passionate about – don’t just sign on to something to have it on your resume.

Options for Reducing Test Pressure

“Admissions offices should work to relieve undue pressure associated with admission tests (SAT and ACT). Options for reducing this pressure include: making these tests optional, clearly describing to applicants how much these tests actually “count” and how they are considered in the admissions process, and discouraging students from taking an admissions test more than twice. Colleges should tell students that taking the test more than twice is very unlikely to meaningfully improve students’ scores. Colleges should also be asked to justify the use of admissions tests by providing data that indicates how scores are related to academic performance at their particular institution.”

Until colleges stop playing the ranking game with US News and other ranking publications, test scores will never really go away. There are over 800 test-optional or flexible colleges in the US already, but it’s unlikely many of the country’s most elite universities will do away with this metric altogether. We’ve emphasized for years that while ACT or SAT scores alone won’t get you in, they can keep you out. When evaluating applications, colleges look at the test scores of previously admitted students and come to an agreement on a benchmark score for admission. If a student doesn’t meet that criterion, it’s unlikely he or she will be admitted.

What this means for students: Starting early is important! A lot of anxiety surrounding the ACT and SAT can be relieved by just getting a head start on test prep and making sure you’re really prepared come test day. Also, make sure you’re taking the test that’s right for you. Prepping for both can add a lot of stress and anxiety – choose the exam that’s best for your abilities and focus on that one. The ACT and SAT both have a plethora of free online resources and practice tests – use those to choose which test is best for you and become familiar with the format of the tests, the content, and what you may need to work on. While the report suggests taking the test no more than twice, we recommend three times as the cap. It’s really after the third sitting that scores plateau.

Prioritizing Quality—Not Quantity—of Activities

“Admissions offices should send a clear message that numerous extracurricular activities or long “brag sheets” do not increase students’ chances of admission. 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. Applications should provide room to list perhaps no more than four activities or should simply ask students to describe two or three meaningful activities narratively.”

Another thing we’ve been telling students for years when it comes to extracurricular involvement – quality is better than quantity. Don’t be a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Students should choose a few activities they’re really passionate about and stay involved throughout high school. Take on leadership positions and find ways to make an impact. For some reason students still buy into the myth that colleges want to see a long resume of dozens of activities, but the opposite is true. Colleges want to see impact, leadership, and commitment to activities, and it’s hard to do that when a student is jumping from activity to activity every week.

What this means for students: If you’re a freshman or sophomore, it’s ok to dabble in a few activities here or there to see what fits your interests. Later on in sophomore year, however, choose three or four that you’re really passionate about and focus on those activities. Drop anything that you’re not interested in – especially if you’re only involved because you think it “looks good” to colleges. Also, be prepared to write an additional essay or two – Yale has already said it will be adding an essay question on next year’s application that asks applicants “to reflect on engagement with and contribution to their family, community and/or the public good.”

Awareness of Overloading on AP/IB Courses

“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. While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions process.”

Course selection is very important when preparing for college. Students should take challenging courses – especially in their area of interest – but their course load should be appropriate for their abilities. Taking a multitude of AP or IB courses only to perform poorly because you’re overwhelmed is not a good strategy.

What this means for students: Grades in college prep courses is the most important thing colleges consider according to NACAC, so it’s important to be challenged, but don’t focus on taking as many advanced classes as possible. Work with your counselor to determine what course load is the best for you.

Expanding Students’ Thinking about “Good” Colleges

“Admissions officers and guidance counselors should challenge 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. It is incumbent upon parents to challenge this misconception as well. There is a broad range of excellent colleges across the country, and students who attend these colleges are commonly successful later in life in the full array of professions.”

We tell students this all the time: It’s not about getting into the “best college,” rather, it’s about getting into the college that’s the best fit for you and your goals. This is why we put so much emphasis on researching colleges and putting together a balanced list of schools, all of which a student would be happy to attend. It’s not about the name brand of a school, but what you do while you’re there.

What this means for students: Continue working with your counselor to identify the best-fit colleges for you. If an Ivy League happens to be on that list as a target or reach – that’s great! If not, that’s ok too! Don’t aim for a name-brand college just to say you got in. Focus on fit – academic, social, and financial.

In the end, a lot of these suggestions are not that new, but the fact that colleges are putting more focus on these areas and aiming to better inform students about how these elements factor into the college admissions process is promising. As long as students get a head start on college prep, choose activities and courses that really interest them, build a balanced list of best fit colleges, and compile genuine and thoughtful applications, they will get into a college where they will be successful and happy!

Related Topics

College Admissions Trends, College Application Tips

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