I still remember the stress of applying to college. I was filled with self-doubt about not just my grades and standardized test scores, but also my paltry list of extracurriculars. I was sure that only the kids who had started their own charities or spent a year volunteering in another country had a shot at getting into the best schools. Unfortunately, for students applying to college today, the application process has only become more difficult, selective and expensive. But one Harvard psychologist is trying to change that.
Richard Weissbourd wants college admissions boards to value the content of a person’s character over the number of activities they’ve signed up for. As Ivy League schools get more and more selective (Stanford, for example, recently turned away 95 percent of its applicants), students are applying to more schools and feeling greater pressure than ever to participate in a large number of extracurricular activities. Many students, however, don’t have the time or money required to participate in those kinds of extracurriculars. Instead, they have to work or care for loved ones — and this works against them in the current selection process.
Said Weissbourd: “[there is an] emphasis on organized clubs, sports, far-flung charity trips and other costly endeavors, and so little on the types of domestic labor and menial jobs that tend to dominate the summers and after-school hours of lower-income students.” In an attempt to shift the focus from achievement to caring, Weissbourd started a Harvard initiative called Making Caring Common, which encourages parents to raise their kids to be good people, not just high achievers.
Too often, he argues, parents emphasize a child’s personal happiness more than “self-sacrifice and commitment to the common good.” I myself have told my kids over and over again that all I want is for them to be happy. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, Weissbourd has made me reconsider what it is I tell my kids I want for them above all else. Is it really their happiness or is it being a good person? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s worth considering the words we choose.
Weissbourd’s hope is that colleges will start to value being a great person over participation in clubs and other achievements (or what the article calls “the babysitting-versus-Belize dilemma.”) He and Lloyd Thacker, the director of a nonprofit called Education Conservancy, have written a report called “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” which offers colleges tips on how to adjust their admissions process to give greater weight to “students whose concern for the common good is their most outstanding quality.”
Some schools, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have already started making some of these changes. MIT’s application, for example, asks applicants to “Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in the family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc.” They have also reduced the number of slots available for students to list their extracurriculars down from 10 to 4 (Yale only has two slots) and recommend not listing ninth-grade activities, saying the year should be a “time for exploration.”
This is great news for anyone whose kids will be applying to college. Not only will kids be encouraged to invest in an activity they care about instead of trying to have as long a list of accomplishments as possible, but lower-income students who can’t take a week to build a church in Antarctica or have to work at their parent’s restaurant after school instead of playing baseball will get the message that there are more (and better) ways to make a contribution to the world and that the best colleges don’t just want the most accomplished people, they want the best people.