TOPICS > Education

College apps should emphasize passion not accomplishments, says Harvard report

January 20, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
Do colleges put too much pressure on students to impress admissions committees with achievements and accolades? A new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education recommends limiting the number of advanced placement classes and extracurricular activities that students can list on applications. Judy Woodruff learns more from Richard Weissbourd.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, many high school seniors have finished college applications. And now they’re waiting to find out whether taking advanced courses, prepping for entrance exams and agonizing over essays will all pay off.

A new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education calls on colleges to lower the pressure on students to impress admissions committees by racking up achievements and accolades. The report, called “Turning the Tide,” recommends limiting the number of advanced placement classes and extracurricular activities that students can list on applications.

Instead, it emphasizes community service and other changes.

Richard Weissbourd is the lead author of the report and he’s a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Richard Weissbourd, thank you very much for joining us.

What is it that’s wrong with the college application process right now?

RICHARD WEISSBOURD, Harvard Graduate School of Education: Well, I think, right now, what students are doing is they’re — some students are racking up accomplishments. I think they think, particularly in affluent communities, that the goal is long brag sheets.

And the message we’re trying to send here is that the goal isn’t long brag sheets. The goal is meaningful academic engagement and spirited, passionate learning, and it’s meaningful ethical engagement. It’s being involved in your community, concern for others, concern for the greater good, for the public good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what is it that students are emphasizing that you would like to see less of?

RICHARD WEISSBOURD: Well, I think one of the things that they are very focused on is creating — accumulating extracurricular activities, accumulating A.P. courses.

And what the admission deans who have endorsed this report — and over 50 admission deans have endorsed it — what they’re saying, what they’re saying collectively, and it’s very important that they’re saying it collectively, you know, they’re on the same page about this, they’re on the same highway — what they’re saying is, you know, you’re not going to be penalized if you take a lot of A.P. courses, but you don’t need to. You’re not going to be penalized if you take a few A.P. courses.

It’s fine. It’s totally appropriate to list a couple, two or three extracurricular activities that have been meaningful to you and to describe why they’re meaningful to you. We’re not looking for long lists of activities either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as you said, it is about 50 colleges and universities that signed on. There were clearly some that didn’t sign on. Aren’t there going to be schools out there that do care about some of the ways these students perform in ways that you’re saying should be de-emphasized?

Isn’t there going to be a different set of criteria now at different schools?

RICHARD WEISSBOURD: Well, you know, I think there’s a few different issues here.

All the Ivy League schools have signed on. A lot of the very selective schools have signed on. And many non — schools that are not especially selective have signed on. And I think, you know, the criteria are still that they’re looking for students who are academically rigorous, but they’re also saying we’re looking for students who lead well-balanced lives, who are involved in their communities.

And they’re not involved in community service as an accomplishment, as a way to impress admissions officers. They are involved in things that are meaningful to them and potentially transformative to them and enable them to have experiences of diversity across race, class, culture, also political and religious orientation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a risk there, though, Richard Weissbourd, that you create a different sort of pressure on students, to rack up the kind of community service that you’re saying you and others want to see them engage in?

RICHARD WEISSBOURD: Well, you know, I think that there are some students and parents who are going to game the system. That’s always true.

But part of what we’re saying is — or part of what we’re motiving them to do is to do forms of community engagement that we think will be transformative for them.

And one of the things about community service and community engagement is, if students have authentic choices, and it’s well-structured, well-supervised, they have time for reflection with adults and with peers, even if it’s mandatory, it tends to be helpful and it often is transformative. It’s a powerful learning experience. So you might even do it for the wrong reason, but end up getting a lot of benefit from it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you think that’s the way it works, you mandate somebody to do community service and then you believe they will get something out of it?

RICHARD WEISSBOURD: Well, we’re not mandating it. We are encouraging it. We are saying that, you know, it’s not about doing a brief stint overseas. It is about doing something meaningful, doing something in a diverse group, doing it for a year, nine months to a year, doing it for a sustained period of time.

And the chances are greater that you’re going to get something out of that kind of experience, and you’re going to be able to describe in the application in a way that’s meaningful and expresses what was meaningful about it to you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a report certainly worth looking at.

Richard Weissbourd at the Harvard School of Education, we thank you.

RICHARD WEISSBOURD: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.