It’s been two years since I struggled through college applications, but the phrase “Common App” still sends shivers down my spine. I am transported back to the horrors of the university search: the competition, crippling self-doubt and overwhelming uncertainty about the future.
It seems melodramatic in hindsight, but those were some of the most stressful and nerve-wracking months of my life. And while I can’t speak for everyone, I know I am not alone. From the generic essay questions to the unstructured interviews, the admissions process is fraught with unnecessary anxiety. It is also decidedly unequal, favoring those who have the time and money to “pad” their resumes and pay for Princeton Review SAT Prep courses. Needless to say, there is massive scope for improvement.
On the bright side, universities are beginning to realize the error of their ways. Last year, 80 colleges and universities — including all the Ivy League schools — established the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. It’s too early to tell if this will improve the situation, but at least institutions have acknowledged the problem and are working to tackle it.
The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is just the beginning. Last month, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report entitled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.” The report, created by the Making Caring Common Project, was written with input from numerous admissions departments and is the first step in a larger push for reforming the admissions process. Among the report’s endorsers is Brown’s very own Dean of Admission Jim Miller ’73.
The “Turning the Tide” report identifies three key aims for a revised application process: to promote community engagement and service among applicants, to evaluate ethical engagement and to reduce undue achievement pressure. It goes on to offer specific recommendations under each category. In particular, the authors argue that students should show “concern for others and the common good.”
The report’s many respected supporters reflect its merit. It brings up several points of paramount importance, especially the sentiment that the current admissions process reeks of insincerity and “resume padding.” With the pressure to list a myriad of extracurricular activities and AP/IB courses, the current system mistakenly prioritizes quantity over quality. And let’s be honest: Who hasn’t stretched the truth a little on the Common App?
Instead, the authors suggest that applications allow students to list up to four meaningful activities, instead of the current 10. They also advise colleges to discourage over-coaching and overloading on AP/IB courses. These are logical improvements to both reduce the pressure and increase the authenticity of university applications.
But I am less convinced by the report’s emphasis on ethical engagement and the “common good.” On paper, these certainly seem like ideal traits, but they come with their own set of pitfalls. How do you define “contributions to others” or the “common good”? The terms set out in the report are too broad and vague to better inform admissions decisions; instead, they will only make the process more subjective.
I am also concerned by the authors’ somewhat narrow emphasis on community service and ethical engagement. Don’t get me wrong: It is vital for students to understand the ethical implications of their actions. It is also wonderful when they are able to tackle problems of local and global importance. But an inordinate focus on these areas could well create a new mold for incoming students and discriminate against strong thinkers with other priorities or constraints. By blindly adopting all the recommendations in the report, admissions departments would still set extreme expectations for applicants — they just happen to be new ones.
Despite the potential of progress, the underlying problems with college admissions will still exist even within the reimagined system. Students from less privileged backgrounds will still face longer odds to reach elite colleges. Parents, students and college counselors will still be able to find new strategies to outmaneuver the system. And ultimately, we will still be left with a cryptic, opaque admissions process that utterly exhausts high school seniors.
The “Turning the Tide” report is a thought-provoking critique of university applications but should not be heralded as an all-encompassing solution. We still have a long way to go.