5 Takeaways from Harvard GSE’s ‘Turning the Tide’.

At the end of January 2016, Harvard GSE’s Making Caring Common Project published a report called Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. The report hit the realm of college admissions with all the force it should. It was published by Harvard — the juggernaut of American postsecondary institutions — and signed off by no fewer than sixty colleges from around the country, dovetailed a year of raucous discussion amongst industry professionals surrounding the creation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (The Coalition), and followed a trend of increased stress, intensity, and emphasis across the board on the major pitfalls of college admissions.

The talk, reports, and coalition creations have emphasized one key element: College admissions is spiraling downward toward something. What is that something? No one knows exactly, but professionals are fairly certain that it is not going to be positive. Thus, change is needed, and needed soon. Turning the Tide and the Coalition are the first seeds of full-scale change that is breeding in an industry desperate for something different.

As a professional dedicated to helping students gain access to best-fit colleges, experience less process stress, and demystify admissions norms, I have found these efforts to be quite promising. While far from perfect, they are steering raising critical discussion points for all of us to consider closely. With this in mind, here are my top 5 takeaways from Harvard GSE’s Turning the Tidereport…

Academics Still Matter.

There is certainly an undertone of the report that is attempting to shift the admission focus from academically overloaded applications to more civically minded, well-rounded applications. While this might be true, and the civically minded student may indeed be preparing themselves to have a more competitive application, this student is still going to have to meet the academic standards of the institution they are considering.

In a meeting this past fall with an admissions representative from a top-tier liberal arts college that has a more holistic admissions process, the representative lamented that the first piece of information that he considers is the student’s academic track record. If the student met his college’s academic standards, then he would look deeper into their application.

Consider that Cornell University received over 44,000 applicants for the fall of 2017. If around 3,000 of those students eventually matriculate, then being of the mind that is emphasized in Turning the Tide is really just going to differentiate you from the 10,000 or students who meet the academic requirements at Cornell first.

Dedication And Commitment Are Paramount.

Throughout the report there is an emphasis on student citizenship, involvement, and garnering of authentic experiences. Certainly, these are goals that many adults have for themselves, and by placing them as currents throughout the report, it means that our conversations with students should be shaped differently. Perhaps we should be asking high schoolers about what they might like to be involved with throughout their secondary school time, encourage them to make a connection between this involvement and their greater community, and help them root these experiences in language that is character defining.

Rather than being thought of as a counter-point to this emphasis, sports should be thought of as a perfect avenue for service and citizenship. How a player contributes to his/her team is a metacognitive consideration that any adolescent should consider.

Community Service Is More Than Just An Hour Requirement.

I have worked at a few schools now, and each has had its requirement for community service. In fact, I have been hard spent to find any modern school that does not have some sort of service/volunteer work/community involvement requirement. The nuance that Turning the Tide talks about is much more about the type of service than the quantity. The report talks at length about authentic experiences. Authentic is quite the word for service. It means that the student’s experience is actually meaningful to the student; that the student is gaining from the service, as well as giving.

At The MET, a Big Picture school in Rhode Island, and El Centro de Estudiantes, a school I helped found in Philadelphia, students engage in learning through internships — true authentic volunteer experiences that are embedded in their curricular norms. Big Picture’s work in reshaping school efforts is exactly what the report refers to. But, the truth is that many students simply do not have the opportunity to gain these types of experiences. Students, therefore, must take action outside of their schools and work to explore these experiences in whatever way they can.

Communities Need To Welcome Young People.

I have been working over the past few weeks with Seniors to secure internships to meet their graduation requirements. Some of the students I have worked with have legitimate skills that they could offer to a company as an intern (and potential future employee!). One talented young media artist I have worked with is going to be a great addition to whichever company she works for in the future. But the number of companies — large and small — that we have contacted for internship possibilities that have turned her down has been astounding. With her portfolio in hand, company after company have said no to her inquiries simply because she is a high schooler. Never mind that she is very talented and independent, and she is looking for a short-term, unpaid experience.

For the proposals in Turning the Tide to come to fruition, communities in general must turn their tide to become more open and welcoming to young people trying to make a difference.

Students Should Unearth Their Values.

I ask my students often: What do you care about? I think this question catches them off-guard. They are unsure even what I mean. I get answers like: I care about my dog, I care about school, I care about my friends. These are great answers, and often what I expect from teenagers. But Turning the Tidesuggests something a bit more. The report encourages students to be able to articulate what they care about and why. It wants students to look in the mirror, dig deep, and unearth what motivates them to be and to do. The report does not point to a specific set of values that it is looking for, nor does it say that students need to fit a certain construct. Rather, it alludes to the fact that students should work on being self-actualized, reflecting on how their values are informing their involvement, actions, and character.

All considered Turning the Tide is a set of tall orders for teenagers, and a certain shift in ideology when it comes to considering college admissions. Moving away from the era of massing AP/IB coursework and perfect test scores will have its challenges, but discussion, actions, and coalition building will continue to help guide students toward their bright futures.