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5 Takeaways From Harvard Ed School’s “Making Caring Common”

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For something so important and so heavily emphasized in high schools across the nation, the college admissions process has become remarkably controversial. Those who condemn admissions as they exist today criticize the system for being on an unsustainable upward trajectory, forcing students to take on more and more APs, test prep classes, and extracurriculars each year in order to have a shot at admission to top universities.


Recently, one of the most prominent names in education has joined those speaking out against the way admissions decisions are made.


Making Caring Common, a project of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, recently released a report endorsed by numerous top players in education containing recommendations for revolutionizing the college admissions process. The report, entitled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions”, recommends changes to not only how students prepare for and apply to college, but also how colleges communicate their expectations and desires to students and use their influence to encourage the creation of engaged, passionate, and responsible citizens.


The report makes recommendations on 3 categories: community engagement, assessment of ethical engagement and diversity, and relieving academic pressure and closing the economic opportunity gap.


Each category contains a series of recommendations whose implementation, according to the report, will make the admissions process both fairer and less stressful, as well as allow colleges to wield their influence to encourage students to engage in meaningful, productive ways in their communities.


In this blog post, we’re going to break down the main recommendations and arguments of Making Caring Common (MCC), as “Turning the Tide” is a report that could have a significant impact on the landscape of admissions in years to come.

(Note: this post merely summarizes MCC and does not necessarily represent the views or recommendations of CollegeVine.)


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An Emphasis on Personally Meaningful, Not Quantitatively Impressive, Service

One distinct theme of the report is that community service should be done in the interest of the community, not the applicant. MCC claims that the current admissions culture discourages students from participating in meaningful, sustainable service to their community, instead reinforcing the idea that what’s most important about a student is their accomplishments. Accordingly, students are driven to only participate in activities where they can earn tangible accomplishments or hold leadership positions: two things that high schoolers are taught to work towards above all else.


Rethinking How We Assess Community Service

Rather than focus solely on what are typically considered “impressive” achievements, MCC urges students to participate in activities that have intrinsic value to them, even if these activities fall outside the range of what we typically consider to be community service, such as working to support one’s family or taking care of siblings. MCC places a strong emphasis on long-term, personal involvement. According to the report, long-term pursuits like those mentioned previously develop many of the same skills the brief, high-profile community service projects (like traveling to a foreign country to build homes) do, and the difference in perception between these two types of service needs to end.

Reducing Stress and Curtailing the Hypercompetitiveness of College Admissions

MCC echoes an oft-repeated adage here at CollegeVine: quality of extracurricular activities should trump quantity. Pushing students to be a member of every club on campus limits personal and academic growth; MCC calls for a new norm of substantive involvement in no more than three activities, a recommendation that goes against the very structure of the Common Application (which provides space for listing 10 extracurricular activities – more than 3 times MCC’s number). Overloading not only on extracurriculars, but on APs, test prep classes, and even testing sessions also contributes to the sense of competitiveness, and MCC believes colleges should discourage practices like taking full schedules of APs or taking the SAT/ACT more than twice.


Evaluating What Makes a College “Good”

Many top students have an extremely narrow conception of what constitutes a good college: namely, the Ivy League, an equivalent, or bust. Outside figures like parents and guidance counselors often only reinforce this notion, pushing students towards top 10 schools and qualifying anything less as failure. MCC argues that this can prevent students from reaching their full potential, not only for the psychological consequences it causes, but also because it precludes students from looking towards alternative options when applying to college that may actually be a better fit for their personal, professional, and academic goals.


Redefining the Role that Colleges Play

According to MCC, whether students realize it or not, the expectations and norms that colleges communicate to students play a significant role in shaping students’ priorities. MCC calls upon colleges to use the influence they hold over students in a positive way; rather than remain institutions that students revere greatly but don’t understand, colleges should communicate with and encourage students to emphasize personal growth and contributions the community in their high school years, and to view these goals as an integral part of their college application process. This recommendation is perhaps the most revolutionary in the report, as it requires college to take the lead in redefining not only their admissions processes, but the mindset and attitude of a generation of applicants. As MMC’s report has been endorsed by over 80 academic leaders, including the deans of all Ivy League schools, higher education seems prepared and eager to take on these new challenges.


Again, this post merely summarizes MCC and does not necessarily represent the views or recommendations of CollegeVine. MCC and, by extension, Harvard Ed School’s decision to add their voice to the outcry regarding the current college admissions process will likely intensify the pressure placed upon the higher education community to eventually begin implementing reforms to the system. While the ultimate impact of this report remains to be seen, it is certain that the input and endorsement of so many leading figures in education will only further spur debate on an issue that’s come to be considered among the most pressing in the education world today.


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.