Column: Quantifying kindness an interesting step for college admissions

For many of us, the college application process consisted of a four-year struggle to enhance our resumes, to include everything that could possibly improve our chances of being admitted into the best schools on our lists. (GotCredit/Flickr)

For many of us, the college application process consisted of a four-year struggle to enhance our resumes, to include everything that could possibly improve our chances of being admitted into the best schools on our lists. Whether we took as many AP classes as possible, became involved with more clubs than we could fit in our schedules or worked on impressive out-of-school projects, we attempted to thrust our individual achievements under the eyes of admissions officers in any way we could.

Recently, however, a coalition of representatives from over 80 schools, including all eight Ivy League schools, has started a revolutionary push to reduce emphasis on these individual achievements and orient the admissions process toward “promoting… meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good” in a new Turning the Tide project spearheaded by Harvard University’s School of Education.

While these initiatives are a huge step forward for the college application process, they are still limited by the difficulties that arise when we attempt to quantify kindness on an application.

The project itself is well-intentioned; it emerged from a Harvard study which found that only about 20 percent of youths claimed their parents valued caring for others over personal achievement and happiness. Along with promoting kindness, the project is intended to level the playing field for students of different socioeconomic backgrounds applying to competitive colleges.

According to the coalition’s report on Turning the Tide, its initiatives will include the addition of essay questions on the application that emphasize the importance of meaningful community service and family contributions, while discouraging students from taking an overabundance of AP classes or being “overcoached” by parents and counselors for the admissions process.

The problem is that overcoaching cannot be eliminated from the application process simply by a change of focus. In the same way that students can hire advisors to help them strategize what clubs and grades they need to be admitted to the nation’s top universities, so too can they invest in training on how to put together an application that displays a false compassion for others.

According to the Turning the Tide report, for example, some suggested questions ask students to define “goodness” and assess whether they themselves are good people, while other questions ask how students have contributed to their communities. In both of these cases, it is clear that the intention is to consider students who might not have the time or resources to become involved in school activities because they are supporting their families, but it is unclear how successful these essay questions will be.

Take, for instance, students who spend the majority of their days caring for siblings and parents and are therefore unable commit to after school activities or AP classes. If these students are strong writers, they may be able to genuinely represent their community contributions in the new application, but otherwise, their strength of character is lost on admissions officers.

No school recommendations will be able to capture a student’s work ethic at home, and as the application stands now, family and friend recommendations are generally disregarded. The last chance for students to explain their exceptional circumstances would be at a college interview, but not all colleges include interviews as a step of the application process.

On the other hand, some students may still have more access to resources that can help them beat this new admissions process such as ghost writers, interview coaches and those who can tell them exactly what colleges are looking for this year.

Parke Muth, former Associate Dean of Admissions at the University of Virginia, illustrated this problem best in a Yale Daily News report: “The idea… 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 will have put 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.”

Even though Turning the Tide has not perfected college applications, the project is still a crucial step toward a fairer admissions process. The fact that renowned schools like Harvard University, which have been founded on the basis of competitive individual achievement for centuries, are considering the flaws in their admittance, means that the conversation about college admissions has obtained a new prominence in today’s education system.

Further considerations and improvements must be made, however, before good character can truly be represented in the application, rather than being reduced to an erroneous quantification.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.