By Lori Dunlap
In case you missed it last month, there was a new attention-grabbing report released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that has caused quite a stir in the college admissions community. Just as many high school students were enduring final exams and simultaneously keeping an eye on the mailbox for college acceptance letters, “Turning the Tide” was released with recommendations that may
change the future of college admissions for everyone. At least, that’s what the authors hope.
In short, the purpose of the report is to call attention to the “escalating achievement pressure” that high school students are under, and to encourage admissions officers to “send compelling messages that both ethical engagement—especially concern for others and the common good—and intellectual engagement are highly important.” The idea is that, by putting more emphasis on community involvement, the college admissions playing field will become more level for students of lower socioeconomic status who do not have the same access to academic opportunities (e.g., honors and AP classes, test preparation tutors) as those of higher socioeconomic status. In other words, if admissions officers weigh passion and service equally with academic achievement, colleges and universities will “achieve greater fairness and integrity” as they also alleviate some of the pressure to achieve that is so pervasive among high school students.
These seem like worthy goals, and it’s certainly hard to argue against the values of community service and passion. In fact, for those of us in the homeschooling community, these are often-cited reasons for our decision to homeschool in the first place. We want our kids to be engaged in a larger community outside of the classroom, and we want them to have time to find and pursue their stronger interests. Volunteering and pursuing passions are what we do. So, this shift in college admissions priorities could actually benefit our non-traditional students who tend to face extra hurdles in college admissions, too. Right?
I certainly hope so, but I’m strongly skeptical for numerous reasons, though I’ll just share my top three with you:
- It’s not practical. “Turning the Tide” was an appropriate name for the report, as the authors’ recommendations will require the same level of divine intervention that parting the Red Sea did. The number of applications submitted to colleges and universities has been increasing ever since the adoption of the Common App and, as a result, admissions officers and faculty are reviewing more and more files every year. Admissions staff from both public and private schools consistently report that their top considerations are GPAs and test scores, with extra-curricular activities falling much lower on the list.
- College rankings matter. Another reason quantitative factors like GPAs and test scores will continue to be the first aspects considered in most applications is that these are also the primary considerations for college rankings. Numbers can be easily compared and ranked, while subjective aspects like community service and other extracurricular activities cannot. High rankings attract more highly qualified students and make it easier to raise money from alums, so “playing the rankings game” is a necessary evil that most admissions officers have had to accept.
- Adaptation is unavoidable. Those who have the resources to do so will adapt very quickly to the new rules of the game. Kids who are already under pressure from their parents and other adults are likely to feel yet more pressure to start volunteering sooner, to find their passion (or at least claim that they have) immediately. We have to remember that these are kids whose brains will not be fully developed for years yet, so the level of pressure that they are already under is unfair and sometimes crippling. Adding more willonly make matters worse.
The implication of all of this for homeschoolers is that things are not likely to change much. We’ll do fine if we just continue as usual, letting our kids explore their interests and move around in the world in their own authentic way. Still, if you are have trouble entirely avoiding the “admissions frenzy,” and want some practical things you can do to help prepare your child for college, here are some suggestions:
- Make sure your child is academically prepared. Admissions officers need to know that your son or daughter has the requisite knowledge to be successful in their program. Can they write at a college level? Are their math and analytical skills solid? Taking a few community college classes during high school can help demonstrate your child’s abilities, as can taking SAT subject tests and the SAT or ACT.
- Document their learning. Start creating a list of course descriptions, reading lists, and other learning activities early. It’s important to note that “classes” and “course descriptions” can be developed retroactively—they do not need to be planned ahead of time—and can instead creatively group activities and readings that are related after they’ve been completed.
- Engage in group activities. It’s sad but true that the myth of the “unsocialized homeschooler” still persists even within the higher education community. So, be prepared to indicate all of the sports teams, academic competitions, scout troops, and other group activities your child has been involved in on the college application and, if appropriate, to incorporate them into the essays as well.
Even if “Turning the Tide” does not visibly change the college admissions process in the near future, I believe it will give those admissions officers who have the time some encouragement to more closely consider the non-quantitative aspects of college applications. At the very least, it is a move in the right direction, one that has gained a lot of attention and support, which is very good news for all of us.
Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. She is now pursuing her long-held interests in research and writing, and writes regularly about homeschooling and higher education. You can find her at http://www.teachyourown.org. Look for Lori’s GHF Press book for college admissions professionals, scheduled for 2017.
Also by Lori Dunlap: College Admissions for Homeschoolers: Three Inevitable Questions