In 2015, Richard Weissbourg, a senior lecturer at Harvard, conducted a survey of 10,000 middle and high school students, from which he concluded that today’s college applicants were more preoccupied with their own happiness and achievement than the well-being of others. He postulated that this obsessive, tunnel-vision pursuit of personal achievement may ultimately result in more stressed out and unhappy individuals in the long run.

To remedy this issue, Weissbourg proposed a new admissions protocol that seeks to change the criteria by which colleges evaluate their prospective applicants – specifically, he wanted colleges to give equal weight to an applicant’s character as well as their academic achievement. This protocol, titled Making Caring Common (MCC), has been endorsed by representatives from over 80 of the top colleges in the nation.

Previously, we’ve summarized the overarching goals of MCC and explored its tenets from various perspectives. Today, we’ll take a look at MCC from an admissions council’s point of view, and how the new admissions structure under MCC can offer these admissions officers new insights into an applicant’s background.

 

Positive Ethical Habits  

With the way that many college applications are structured today, it’s often difficult to infer what an applicant is like in their day-to-day lives. Applications do ask for extracurriculars and essays, but there’s only so much those can do towards getting to know the kind of person the applicant is when they’re not trying to impress admissions councils.

One of the goals that MCC has outlined for colleges is to create a more in-depth application that aims to obtain a more candid, three-dimensional, and dynamic image of a prospective applicant. More specifically, according to MCC’s official report, colleges should aim to assess applicants’ “daily awareness of and contributions to others.”

In the report, Weissbourg and his colleagues propose that colleges should implement this directive by reshaping their essay questions — questions that too often focus only on the applicant’s academic repertoire. MCC suggests that colleges include more essay questions that ask applicants to “reflect broadly on how they contribute to others and on what values guide their lives,” in a more moral and ethical sense.

The report also asks counselors, teachers, and recommenders to reflect more on their everyday interactions with a prospective applicant and to justify their positive claims about an applicant based on observable, consistent actions. Future recommendations might also have a selection section where recommenders are instructed to pick a preset number of adjectives that describe an applicant; some adjectives will be academically positive, while others are ethically positive. Whether or not ethically positive terms are chosen for an applicant will indicate to admissions councils the relative value of ethics to that applicant.

All these techniques combined serve to build a facet of a college application expressly dedicated to evaluating not just how moral an applicant is, but also how consistent the applicant is about living out those values.

 

Perseverance and a Willingness to Learn

One of the keywords emphasized in MCC’s report is the word “sustained,” and for good reason too — colleges have witnessed a trend of applicants engaging in extracurriculars for short periods of time to pad out their resume and then giving them up. The report also points out that partaking in an excessive number of extracurriculars can also cause undue stress and emotional pressure in applicants, and that oftentimes, applicants from less privileged backgrounds are at a disadvantage in the admissions process because their schools don’t offer the wide range of extracurriculars available at wealthier schools.

To address all three of these issues, MCC stresses an emphasis on the quality of extracurriculars over the quantity — namely, they recommend that an applicant should only need to list two or three extracurriculars on their application, but that these extracurriculars must be extracurriculars that the applicant has clearly dedicated himself or herself to. When addressing the issue of community service extracurriculars, for example, the MCC report states that a high-quality community service experience should be “consistent, well-structured and sustained, and [should] provid[e] opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults.

The reasoning behind this is that MCC wishes to see applicants who have been intrinsically transformed by their extracurriculars, either in the way they think or the way they feel about the world. They hope that the extracurriculars that an applicant chooses will have “engaged students’ concerns and intellect and developed in them important awareness of and commitment to others and the public good.” And in order to feasibly reach such a profound realization within an extracurricular, the report presumes that applicants must have dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to it.

This shift from quantity and ostensible value or competitiveness to intrinsic personal development in the evaluation of extracurriculars rewards students who have truly dedicated themselves to the same causes for significant portions of their lives — it portrays these applicants as people with a genuine interest that they are willing to commit to, and who are constantly reevaluating their worldview and bettering themselves through their experiences.

 

Open-mindedness

Colleges typically encourage a diverse campus with students from various racial and cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic origins, political orientations, and the like. However, the MCC report duly notes that many diversity initiatives that college applicants partake in are surface-level and tokenistic, and do not help in actually facilitating exchange between students of different backgrounds.

In order to encourage deeper understandings of diversity, the report suggests that colleges ask about diversity in terms of the changes that interactions with diversity have engendered in an applicant. After interacting with people of diverse backgrounds, have applicants become more understanding? Have they realized a better way to do things from people of a different background? Have they become an advocate or an ally?

Most importantly, MCC proposes that applicants who do take part in diversity initiatives do so on equal footing with the demographic that they are interacting with — from the report itself, it says that an applicant should not be “doing for” people with different backgrounds, and that he or she should instead “do with,” interacting with people of different backgrounds on their terms and integrating into their daily lives instead of the other way around.

These new evaluations of diversity participation discourages the type of superficial and patronizing understanding of different backgrounds that comes from when an applicant simply glosses over the traits of people from a different background on the applicant’s own terms. Instead, it forces applicants to immerse themselves in a different background and experience the world from the perspective of that different background, and rewards those who are able to accept people apart from themselves as equals.

 

Though MCC preserves much of the academic evaluation structure of the current application system (with a few exceptions), the provisions it proposes for a remodeling of the current system are geared towards character building and self-development — two traits that the report states have been neglected in the race for acceptance into top colleges. Once parents, students, teachers, and admissions officers re-focus their efforts towards developing better people instead of just better students, Weissbourg suggests, we’ll begin seeing a rise in happier, more fulfilled, and more complete individuals.

Jeanette Si

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is a junior at Cornell University double majoring in Information Science and China and Asia-Pacific Studies. As someone who’s received a lot of help from mentors during her personal admissions process, she’s looking to give back now that her own admissions season is behind her. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found singing show tunes (terribly), playing MOBAs (passably), or quoting Jane Austen (expertly).
Jeanette Si