Admissions to focus on character

In response to a Harvard Graduate School of Education report centered around reforming the college admissions process, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan announced Wednesday that Yale would be making changes to next year’s application to emphasize ethical conduct and authentic academic and extracurricular engagement over laundry lists of achievements.

The report, titled “Turning the Tide,” was released Wednesday morning at a panel in New York City and focused on three main concerns: emphasizing authentic civic engagement over personal achievement, reducing undue pressure on students and increasing college opportunity for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. The main focus of the report is to inspire concern for others and the common good through college admissions. To that end, Quinlan announced that the University would add a question to the Yale application asking students to “reflect on engagement with and contribution to their family, community and/or the public good,” and would also advocate for more flexibility in the Common and Coalition Applications so that schools can customize how students discuss extracurricular activities in their applications. The report comes amid widespread concern across the nation about the accessibility of higher education and the emotional toll the college application process can take on students.

“With lots of information and uncertain outcomes in front of them,” Quinlan said at the panel, “students and parents default to emphasizing the quantifiable: individual achievement in academics, athletics and extracurricular activities … Meanwhile, on our campuses, colleges are actually looking for something else. Yes, we want students who have achieved in and out of the classroom, but we are also looking for things that are harder to quantify: authentic intellectual engagement, a concern for others and the common good.”

The report was endorsed by more than 80 college admissions stakeholders, such as admissions officers, professors and high school counselors, as well as by the Board of Directors of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, of which Quinlan is a member. In September, the Coalition — which comprises over 80 colleges and universities nationwide — announced its intention to make the college admissions process more equitable by introducing a new application intended to reduce student stress. The Coalition Application is set to launch later this spring.

Among the report’s recommendations for reducing undue pressure on high-school students are making standardized tests optional or discouraging students from taking them more than twice, raising awareness of overloading on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and prioritizing quality, not quantity, of extracurricular activities.

Though college admissions counselors interviewed generally agreed that the process is in need of reform, they were widely skeptical that the recommendations outlined in the report would result in the desired ends.

“What this report proposes is that the race to the top be given a different focus,” said Parke Muth, former associate dean of admissions at University of Virginia and an independent college counselor. “The idea, however, that it will be easy to separate who has given of themselves in a genuine way from those just padding the resume is naïve. Many students have put in years of work into service-related activities and I am not sure that there will be enough evidence to demonstrate who will come out as truly sincere.”

Michael Goran, director of California-based private education consulting firm IvySelect, said he thought a decreased emphasis on AP courses would benefit students at schools with more resources, as those schools would have more rigorous alternatives.

Brian Taylor, director of New York-based college consulting firm Ivy Coach, said that Yale’s additional application question will only encourage students to be boastful about their personal qualities, rather than revealing their true characters through their essays. This would run counter to the report’s mission, which is to encourage genuineness in a process often touted by cynics as inauthentic.

Still, Quinlan emphasized that the report is significant not only for its proposals but also for what it represents: a group of colleges coming together to define what they see as valuable qualities in their applicants.

“The point I really want to emphasize today is how important this document is — not as a set of recommendations across different institutions — but rather as a collaborative effort to send a stronger and clearer signal to what matters in the college admissions process,” Quinlan said.

Last year, Yale admitted 6.49 percent of its 30,237 applicants.


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