Turning the Tide in Admissions: A Fancy-Pants Harvard Paper That Inspired a Yawn

Bev Taylor

February 17, 2016

Full House, the late ’80s and ’90s ABC sitcom starring John Stamos and Bob Saget, is getting its sequel treatment for Netflix. But Fuller House will be without a character, Michelle, who I suspect would have the most appropriate response to the highly publicized but short on substance report coming out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education on how the college admissions process can be improved. Michelle, after all, was famous for saying “duh.” And duh is the most appropriate response to the collective wisdom of the Harvard scholars who may not be able to change a lightbulb but can put together a twenty-five page report best suited to ignite a campfire. But before the report is used to keep warm, allow me to dissect it.

The first recommendation of the report supports “meaningful, sustained community service.” As the report reads, “This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income.” This is about as novel an idea as root beer floats. For decades, college applicants have earned respect in the college admissions process for work experience. And working to provide needed income for one’s family is not only commendable — it’s long given a boost to underprivileged applicants to highly selective colleges, a sought after group. After admissions officers sift through dozens of applications from entitled kids, the applicant who works to support his family is a rose in December.

But that’s not all that’s obvious about the first recommendation. The recommendation goes on, “Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership.” At Ivy Coach, we’ve been saying this for a quarter of a century. In 2009, I was quoted by Fox News as stating, “Students need to be creative, to think outside the box. They need to do something different, something that will attract attention. They don’t have to spend $6,000 to travel to the Fiji Islands to work with preschoolers or construct a nursing station. Through their school, synagogue, church, and together with their friends, or even on their own, students can do something very significant in their own community.”

It gets worse. The second recommendation reads as follows: “Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas.” Nonsense. Students who take advanced courses in all academic areas and who have excelled at those courses are always going to be more competitive in admissions. What the authors of this report fail to recognize is that College Board awards are based on the number of AP exams a student excels at and IB diplomas are based on a particular curriculum. But the authors go on, “At the same time, it’s vital to increase access to advanced courses for large numbers of students in schools without access to adequately challenging courses.” This recommendation seems arbitrary, contradictory, and discriminatory. An overload of AP or IB courses is only necessary for students in schools “without access to adequately challenging courses” – or schools where there’s a lack of funding? Hello Pandora’s Box.

The third recommendation reads, “Admissions offices should warn students and parents that applications that are ‘overcoached’ can jeopardize desired admission outcomes.” More than ten years ago, there was a question on Duke’s application that read, “We recognize that all good writers seek feedback, advice, or editing before sending off an essay. When you’ve completed your essay, please tell us whose advice you sought for help, the advice he/she provided, and whether you incorporated his/her suggestions.” That question appeared for only two years. Why not longer? Because Duke recognized the response was of no value to them. If students got help, they rarely admitted it.

Oh and the fourth recommendation: “Admissions offices should work to relieve undue pressure associated with admission tests (SAT and ACT). Options for reducing this pressure include: making these tests optional, clearly describing to applicants how much these tests actually ‘count’ and how they are considered in the admissions process, and discouraging students from taking an admissions test more than twice.” With very few exceptions, highly selective colleges are not “test optional,” and they know that if they decided to go “test optional,” it would adversely impact their US News & World Report ranking.

I could go on dissecting the either obvious or meritless points of this report but unlike the authors of the report, I know a small percentage of readers actually comb through a 1.5 page editorial — and certainly not a 25-page piece. While the attempt of the authors of this report to “turn the tide” of admissions is admirable, and commendable, tides don’t turn from lengthy reports. Tides turn when people, collectively, rally together to create, to mandate change. It’s a precedent firmly established in the history of the American black civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements. It’s a precedent that has helped make our nation infinitely stronger.