The Harvard Report on College Admissions

Should admissions focus on achievement or potential?


At a time when many families are in a harried rush to finalize college applications or complete the FAFSA to determine if they qualify for financial aid, an interesting report has come out from Harvard which may cause some people to pause a moment and think about the benefits of applying to, and succeeding in, college. With the higher costs of a college education and the student loan debt that is usually associated with attendance, a great deal of focus has been placed on finding a college which can lead to a high-paying job after graduation.

But should some of the attention also be focused on finding a college which intends to turn out a well-rounded graduate?

The question is not moot, as it can affect not only the way families think about applying to college, but also the way colleges may look at applicants. Do they only want to select from high-performing overachievers, or is there a benefit to looking for students who try to contribute to the greater good? Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently took a close look at some of these questions in its report, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.” Here are a few of the more interesting recommendations favored in this report.

4 Recommendations from the Harvard Report on College Admissions

  • Promote Meaningful Contributions to Others: The report places a high value on service, but not just any type of service. It is not helpful for high school students to engage in every community organization for the sole purpose of looking good on a college education. Instead, it is better to engage in a year of service with a purpose, something that the student can feel passionately about, and that results in some type of long-term improvement.
  • Assess Students’ Contributions to Others: The authors recommend that college admissions officials look at not just the type of involvement, but the quality of involvement. One week in a third world country providing community support is important, but what was the student’s level of involvement and leadership, and what happened upon the student’s return that can effect change in the future? Did the student become involved and form an emotional commitment, or was it simply a step to be checked off the college application list?
  • Redefine Achievement: Students are also encouraged to take part in community activities, not just solo enterprises. It is felt that this approach will give them the opportunity to learn more about diverse communities, and to build their skills in group situations. The give and take that is learned from working in a group lends itself well to excel in the college classroom, as well as the future work environment.
  • Engagement vs. Involvement: Admissions officers are encouraged to take a closer look at a student’s level of engagement in a particular activity, whether at home or in the community. Did the student simply perform a specific task, or was he or she working hand in hand with a particular group, and getting to know them on a personal level? It is felt that these types of experiences will help students develop a sense of gratitude for what they have, as well as a sense of responsibility on their part in taking action to provide permanent improvement.

Should colleges be geared towards turning out students who make great workers or great citizens? It is an interesting question which families might want to take into consideration as they make the final college choice.