Big potential changes for college admissions?

There’s been a lot of chatter about the recent study entitled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions” released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The study proposed sweeping changes to the college admissions process with three major recommendations:

1.     Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.

  1. Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class.
  2. Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.


You can view the full report and additional resources at

The report’s Executive Summary addresses the conflicts many admissions professionals, parents and students feel as they participate in the college admissions process. Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-director of the Making Caring Common Project shared “As a rite of passage, college admissions plays a powerful role in shaping student attitudes and behaviors. Admissions deans are stepping up collectively to underscore the importance of meaningful engagement in communities and greater equity for economically diverse students.”

The report states, “Yet high school students often perceive colleges as simply valuing their achievements, not their responsibility for others and their communities. The messages that colleges do send about concern for others are commonly drowned out by the power and frequency of messages from parents and the larger culture emphasizing individual achievement.”

Everyone acknowledges that the college admissions has become increasingly competitive and that competition has created a tense environment for high school students and more and more for the parents of high school students as well. One mom recently shared that her “perfectionist” daughter is completely stressed out over standardized tests, selecting rigorous courses for next year, deciding what to do this summer, staying engaged in her extracurricular activities and yes, let’s not forget, studying and getting fabulous grades. The report states “Escalating achievement pressure is not healthy for our youth. Young people are suffering from higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse as they juggle the demands of their lives.” Students are hurting, parents are complaining and colleges are finally listening.

Here are some of the changes the Harvard report has suggested:

  • Putting less emphasis on standardized testing ; possibly making the SAT and ACT optional.
  • Stressing quality over quantity regarding how many and which extracurricular activities and advance placement classes students choose.
  • Valuing authentic, sustained commitment to a community service rather than presenting a laundry list of activities.
  • Factoring in family and community responsibilities which will help to level the playing field for less privileged students.
  • Asking students to write about their contributions to their families and others.
  • Emphasizing the concept of finding a good fit for each student rather than falling prey to prestige and rankings which only continue to support the competitive nature of college admissions.

Please let me know what you think. Are these suggestions viable, overly optimistic, realistic?


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;