Many are lauding academia’s stated wish to ease pressure on youngsters who feel they must earn near-perfect test scores to attain a bright future.
The elites of higher education now seem on the same page with a broad swath of Americans concerned about a generation driven to achieve.
They’re saying: Our cultural quest to construct super-accomplished, résumé-armed, Ivy League-bound teens is doing this nation no good and perhaps damaging millions of its kids.
Some students have mixed feelings about that assessment.
Many are lauding academia’s stated wish to ease pressure on youngsters who feel they must earn near-perfect test scores to attain a bright future. Others wonder how colleges can measure the attributes they say they’re seeking — “character,” “passion” and such.
From Harvard University came a report last month that framed new criteria for the most selective colleges to consider when weighing the types of applicants they should select.
Look for “caring” and “ethical.” Rank the quality of their achievements over the quantity. Enroll young people focused on pursuing a genuine passion rather than just those determined to compile a list of far-flung activities.
Consider less decorated high-schoolers who have committed time to a sick relative or juggled jobs to help their families. Fixate less on those spending their formative years consumed by a perceived need to massage college entrance test marks or amass extracurricular endeavors, the report advised.
The findings and recommendations of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, titled “Turning the Tide,” drew the endorsement of more than 50 U.S. colleges and universities, prep schools, mental health groups and think tanks.
It also stirred skepticism among critics of the college admissions process.
“Giving students a high-minded outline for becoming better applicants doesn’t change the underlying problem,” wrote Sara Harberson, founder of a website called Admissions Revolution, in The Huffington Post. “Institutional biases continue to corrupt a process that should be pure and noble.”
And what’s the thinking of students indoctrinated in a culture of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, test preparation and ferocious competition to be noticed by the prestige institutions?
This gentler, passion-fed approach sounds good, say top high school seniors who have been through the enrollment wringer.
In fact, admissions counselors they visited at plum universities along the way had already urged them to “be yourself, pursue your passion, don’t just pad your résumés.”
But it’s hard to trust them. In this kind of race, it’s hard to ease off the gas pedal.
“You don’t really know what’s in their heads,” Blue Valley Northwest High School (Overland Park, Kan.) senior Suruchi Ramanujan says about those deciders of who gets in and who doesn’t.
“Yeah, sure,” says classmate Claudia Chen. “‘Be yourself’ — as long as your self likes this and this and this and this.”
They laugh about it now. They feel lucky. Ramanujan has been accepted to Harvard and Chen to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And they made it while being themselves, mostly.
They both, however, added AP history to their class schedules on top of all their high-level math and science, though their enthusiasm for history was, well, scant.
More balanced, less frazzled
In recent years, college admissions directors nationwide have joined a growing chorus calling for “holistic” evaluations of applicants, especially at the most pricey and ultraselective schools.
Hundreds of colleges have made optional the submission of ACT and SAT college entrance exam scores. Many now require that applicants write personal essays to reveal what their GPAs do not.
Searching for more balanced and less frazzled college prospects isn’t an entirely new mission among elite schools. But Harvard’s critique, coming during the season when applications spike, signals that admissions offices are serious about leveling the playing field between manic achievers and the best of the rest, says Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT.
“There’s become a bit of a mismatch between what we really expect out of students and what they think we expect,” says Schmill, one of the report’s dozens of endorsers.
“The academics still need to be strong,” he says, but many high school students might boost their chances by drilling into a favorite field of study rather than spreading themselves thin with a multitude of honors courses and activities.
But wait — weren’t we all told something different?
What happened to the litany about top grades, school involvement and nose-to-the-homework being so critical to youth success and a prosperous career?
“If you’re asking if colleges and educators bear some responsibility for this dysfunctional system we’ve got, oh yeah, I completely agree,” says Michael Beseda, vice president for enrollment at Willamette University, another endorser of the Harvard report.
The dysfunction to which he refers has allowed privileged kids with the best resources to pack the halls of exclusive institutions. Rather than narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots, “higher education has become an engine of greater inequality,” Beseda says.
Super-selective schools have come under the harshest criticism — not only for steering the luckiest youths into the best-paying jobs, but also for promoting achievement and hoop-jumping over contentment and kindness.
The 2014 book “Excellent Sheep,” by former Yale University professor William Deresiewicz, skewered the Ivy League with accounts of students battling depression, eating disorders and thoughts of suicide.
David Cantwell, a counselor at Kansas City’s public Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, says Harvard’s assessment and the tide of endorsements reflect worries about a generation that elite schools helped create.
I think they’ve discovered a void in the quality of the population they’ve attracted, being so test-centered.” - David Cantwell, academic counselor
“I think they’ve discovered a void in the quality of the population they’ve attracted, being so test-centered,” he says.
What students see
Some students do see wisdom in the idea.
By casting a wider net to snare the right freshmen, prestigious schools might lift those who don’t have all of the resources for extra tutoring and test-prep books, some say.
David Lietjauw, a senior at Olathe (Kan.) North High School, knows the strain of limited family resources as he tries to take his engineering dreams to Rice University, or Washington University, or maybe Princeton.
“You hear about how you can pay someone to write your essays or get them edited,” he says.
And when he worried about his prep for the ACT, his mother suggested they could hire a tutor. “But we looked on the Internet and, yeah, we couldn’t afford a tutor.”
So he loaded up with library books. And he spent much of his family’s vacation last year slipping into hotel lobbies with his laptop, writing and polishing essay after essay.
“That some may have the money — for editors and tutors — creating more of a divide,” he says. “It feels like it’s rigged.”
Even as it goes now, at universities where the successful enrollments can be as low as 5 percent of all applicants, the odds seem as much outlandish as arbitrary, students say.
Rockhurst (Kan.) High School senior Daniel Henry considers himself fortunate, having been accepted at Stanford University. But he thinks of a close friend who missed out on getting into his choice university.
“He is the hardest worker, the most selfless person you’d ever meet,” Henry says, but when it came to his college application, “I think he was too humble.”
“It’s tough,” Henry says. “Admission is a crapshoot. You’re competing with an immense group of people.”
The anxiety is not going to go away, regardless of whatever changes elite universities make to their admission process, says Olathe North senior Disha Dasgupta.
Managing the kind of stress she endured in gaining acceptance to the California Institute of Technology will still weigh on students.
“The intensity is as much as you make it,” she says. “You can keep putting things on your transcript, but you can never predict what colleges want.”