Our district’s focus on wellness and balance, our stated mission to prepare young people not simply to get into a competitive college but to lead lives of “joy and purpose,” has been generally met with overwhelming support by our community. Nevertheless, I inevitably get the question: “How can we change the competitive pressure our students feel when the college admissions process continues to apply it?
Remarkably, the colleges answered that question themselves with a groundbreaking report on the admissions process released last month by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Entitled, Turning the Tide, the report was written and endorsed by scores of the top colleges across the country. And it says simply this: Enough. It is time to end the arms race among students of more and more AP courses and ever increasing extra-curricular activities. It is time to end the emphasis on individual, personal success rather than concern for others and the common good.
Instead, the report calls for colleges to send the message that what they want for our young people is to be “ethically and intellectually engaged.” And it offers a series of recommendations to achieve just that.
To foster ethical engagement, the report recommends a sustained, authentic commitment to community service. According to the report, community service is not a box you check when you’ve completed a specified number of hours but a value that has been developed at home and at school over multiple years. The report asks for community service that broadens our students’ understanding of diversity and deepens their sense of gratitude.
The report also emphasizes the importance of service to family. Maintenance of job, taking care of younger siblings – these too have value in deepening ethical engagement and should be affirmed by the college admissions process.
Under the umbrella of “intellectual engagement” the report recommends a few extra-curricular activities done well rather than a long list of superficial involvements.
And the same is true with academics. The report recommends students take fewer AP and accelerated courses so that they can explore them in depth with passion and curiosity. “We don’t want students who do things just because they think they have to in order to get into college” writes Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT. “To the contrary: we want students who lead balanced lives, who pursue their interests with energy and enthusiasm, and who work cooperatively with others.”
Finally, the report recommends that we expand students’ thinking about “good” colleges. There are many pathways to professional and personal success, and the reality is: the person you take to college – your character, intellect, and creativity – is far more important than the particular college you attend.
For me, the report is summed up best by Diane Anci, dean of admission at Kenyon College. She writes:
“In Turning the Tide, we are granting our children permission, space, and time to develop their analytical strength, their empathic and generative selves, and their inner lives of reflection, values, and aspirations. We will reward them by emphasizing depth over breadth of resume, and strength of purpose over multiple application fillers. In shifting our focus, we hope to inspire students to use their school years as truly formative. We aspire to the goal of matriculating students who have the internal clarity and drive that will propel them forward through their college years and beyond.”
Turning the Tide signals a sea change in college admissions and an affirmation of our efforts here in Princeton. I hope the report is read by all of us – educators, parents, and young people. Moreover, I hope that all of us join in weaving its critical and common-sense recommendations into the fabric of our schools.