To get into college, Harvard report advocates for kindness instead of overachieving

The Washington Post

January 20

As your oldest child begins to fill out her college application, it is hard not to feel a rising panic. For the last four years she has thrown herself into her school work, taken AP classes, studied for the SAT, worked on the school paper, played on the field hockey team and tutored elementary school children.

Yet as she methodically records her activities on the application, it becomes clear that this was simply not enough. There are 10 looming blank spaces and although her days have been overflowing with homework, activities and volunteering, she has only five activities to report. There are 15 spaces to record the four AP classes she was so proud of taking.

You wonder who the kid is who can complete all of these blank spaces, and what has gone wrong that this is what applying to college now means.

A new report released today by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, takes a major step in trying to change the college admissions process to make it more humane, less super-human.

Parents, educators and college administrators have long wrestled with the unintended negative side effects of the admissions process, like the intense focus on personal achievement and the unfair advantages of more affluent students. The report, entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions, aims to tackle these complex issues. It lays out a blueprint for addressing three of the most intractable challenges facing college applicants today: excessive academic performance pressure, the emphasis on personal achievement over good citizenship, and the uneven opportunities available to students of varying income levels and backgrounds.

Many colleges have tried to address these concerns over the years but it takes a unified effort to make a big impact, says lead author Richard Weissbourd. More than 80 stakeholders, including admissions officers (like Harvard’s), deans, professors and high school counselors have endorsed the report.

“It’s the first time in history that I’m aware of” that a group of colleges is coming together to lay out what is and what isn’t valued in the admissions process, says Weissbourd.

“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, [like] authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good,” explains Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, one of the report’s endorsers.

In response to the report, Yale will be adding an essay question on next year’s application that asks applicants “to reflect on engagement with and contribution to their family, community and/or the public good,” Quinlan says. Yale will also “advocate for more flexibility in the extracurricular sections on both the Common Application and Coalition Application, so that colleges can more easily control how they ask students to list and reflect on their extracurricular involvement.”

The University of Virginia is also in agreement with the report. “We supportTurning the Tide because we philosophically agree with many of the principal points in the document, [like] promoting, encouraging, and developing good citizenship, strong character, personal responsibility, [and] civic engagement in high school students,” says Gregory Roberts, the school’s dean of admissions.

Like Yale, several of the report’s endorsers have already modified their admissions efforts or practices as a result of these findings. Weissbourd said that over the next two years, Making Caring Common will work with college admissions officers, parents, high school guidance counselors and others to further implement the report’s recommendations. He hopes that many of these points will eventually be incorporated into the Common, Coalition and Universal applications as well.

Here are five highlights from the report, along with tips from Making Caring Common for how parents can help turn the tide:

1. Reduce stress by limiting course loads and extracurricular activities. Admissions offices can reduce undue pressure by sending a clear message that “long brag sheets do not increase students’ chances of admission.” To make this point, the authors recommend applications provide room for only two to four activities or ask students to describe two to three meaningful activities in an essay. Tallying up a lengthy listing of AP credits should be discouraged in favor of more sustained effort in areas of genuine interest.

Parent tip: Help your teens by encouraging them to find activities, classes and volunteer experiences that are meaningful to them, but that do not create undue stress.

2. Value the different ways students make contributions to their families and communities. Current applications often disadvantage students from less affluent backgrounds who may make important but overlooked contributions, such as working part-time to help support their families or taking care of a family member, leaving them no time for extracurricular activities or community service. Colleges need to clearly communicate the high value they place on family contributions and give ample opportunity for applicants to explain their role. By doing so, the authors hope to redefine achievement in broader terms.

Parent tip: If your teens help to run the household, babysit a younger sibling after school, or make other significant family contributions, make sure they write about it on their applications.

3. Stress the importance of authenticity. At the heart the report is the notion that admissions committees are looking for students who are authentic and honest about their interests and accomplishments. Students are encouraged to find the right college fit by remaining true to themselves, keeping an open mind about their options and examining a broad range of colleges. It should also be made clear that over-coached applications can jeopardize admission. Confidence and integrity are best reflected in the student’s own voice.

Parent tip: College admissions officers can sense when an application is not authentic or trumped up. Help teens present themselves in their best light, while still staying true to who they really are.

4. Alleviate Test Pressure.  Some colleges have already taken steps to de-emphasize the weight of the SATs and ACTs by making these tests optional. Admissions offices can reduce the pressure surrounding standardized tests by doing this or clearly explaining the test’s weight in the admissions process.

Parent tip: Try to discourage students from taking the same standardized test more than twice, as it rarely results in a meaningfully higher score. Remind your children of that.

5. Engage in meaningful community service. The report highlights a common misconception that volunteering for certain high-profile causes or traveling to exotic countries will make an application stand out. It will, but for the wrong reasons: namely that it looks inauthentic.

Parent tip: Help your teens find sustained community service opportunities that extend for a year or more where the student can be fully engaged in something that is important to them and, in turn, have a meaningful impact. Community engagement can take many different forms, from addressing local needs to serving in a soup kitchen to volunteering on a political campaign or making meaningful contributions at home. Look for opportunities where teens can work side by side with the people they are helping, instead of for them, which can sometimes feel patronizing and may not create as rich an experience.

There will be some applicants who will try to game these new recommendations by engaging in community service in which they have no real interest and later writing insincerely about their experience. However, Weissbourd notes, even students who engage in community service with misplaced motivation may have a powerful learning experience. Research shows that for many students service activities are an opportunity for maturity and growth, even when they are mandatory or driven by the college application process.

Lisa Heffernan writes about parenting during the high school and college years at Grown and Flown. You can follow her on Twitter and Grown and Flown on Facebook.

Jennifer Wallace is a freelance writer based in New York, where she lives with her husband and their three children. Twitter: @wallacejennieb.

5 Ways To Raise Nice Kids

Are you raising nice kids? A Harvard psychologist gives 5 ways to raise them to be kind

By Amy Joyce July 18, 2014
5 strategies to raise moral, kind children

Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, and the Making Caring Common Project have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. (The Washington Post)
Earlier this year, I wrote about teaching empathy, and whether you are a parent who does so. The idea behind it is from Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, who runs the Making Caring Common project, aimed to help teach kids to be kind.

I know, you’d think they are or that parents are teaching that themselves, right? Not so, according to a new study released by the group. (Chat with Weissbourd here.)

About 80 percent of the youth in the study said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Weissbourd and his cohorts have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. Why is this important? Because if we want our children to be moral people, we have to, well, raise them that way.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” the researchers write.

The five strategies to raise moral, caring children, according to Making Caring Common:

1. Make caring for others a priority

Why? Parents tend to prioritize their children’s happiness and achievements over their children’s concern for others. But children need to learn to balance their needs with the needs of others, whether it’s passing the ball to a teammate or deciding to stand up for friend who is being bullied.
How? Children need to hear from parents that caring for others is a top priority. A big part of that is holding children to high ethical expectations, such as honoring their commitments, even if it makes them unhappy. For example, before kids quit a sports team, band, or a friendship, we should ask them to consider their obligations to the group or the friend and encourage them to work out problems before quitting.
Try this
• Instead of saying to your kids: “The most important thing is that you’re happy,” say “The most important thing is that you’re kind.”
• Make sure that your older children always address others respectfully, even when they’re tired, distracted, or angry.
• Emphasize caring when you interact with other key adults in your children’s lives. For example, ask teachers whether your children are good community members at school.
2. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude
Why? It’s never too late to become a good person, but it won’t happen on its own. Children need to practice caring for others and expressing gratitude for those who care for them and contribute to others’ lives. Studies show that people who are in the habit of expressing gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving—and they’re also more likely to be happy and healthy.
How? Learning to be caring is like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily repetition—whether it’s a helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, or having a classroom job—make caring second nature and develop and hone youth’s caregiving capacities. Learning gratitude similarly involves regularly practicing it.
Try this
• Don’t reward your child for every act of helpfulness, such as clearing the dinner table. We should expect our kids to help around the house, with siblings, and with neighbors and only reward uncommon acts of kindness.
• Talk to your child about caring and uncaring acts they see on television and about acts of justice and injustice they might witness or hear about in the news.
• Make gratitude a daily ritual at dinnertime, bedtime, in the car, or on the subway. Express thanks for those who contribute to us and others in large and small ways.

3. Expand your child’s circle of concern.
Why? Almost all children care about a small circle of their families and friends. Our challenge is help our children learn to care about someone outside that circle, such as the new kid in class, someone who doesn’t speak their language, the school custodian, or someone who lives in a distant country.
How? Children need to learn to zoom in, by listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out, by taking in the big picture and considering the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. They also need to consider how their
decisions, such as quitting a sports team or a band, can ripple out and harm various members of their communities. Especially in our more global world, children need to develop concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities than their own.
Try this
• Make sure your children are friendly and grateful with all the people in their daily lives, such as a bus driver or a waitress.
• Encourage children to care for those who are vulnerable. Give children some simple ideas for stepping into the “caring and courage zone,” like comforting a classmate who was teased.
• Use a newspaper or TV story to encourage your child to think about hardships faced by children in another country.

4. Be a strong moral role model and mentor.
Why? Children learn ethical values by watching the actions of adults they respect. They also learn values by thinking through ethical dilemmas with adults, e.g. “Should I invite a new neighbor to my birthday party when my best friend doesn’t like her?”
How? Being a moral role model and mentor means that we need to practice honesty, fairness, and caring ourselves. But it doesn’t mean being perfect all the time. For our children to respect and trust us, we need to acknowledge our mistakes and flaws. We also need to respect children’s thinking and listen
to their perspectives, demonstrating to them how we want them to engage others.
Try this:
• Model caring for others by doing community service at least once a month. Even better, do this service with your child.
• Give your child an ethical dilemma at dinner or ask your child about dilemmas they’ve faced.

5. Guide children in managing destructive feelings
Why? Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings.
How? We need to teach children that all feelings are okay, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful. Children need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways.
Try this
Here’s a simple way to teach your kids to calm down: ask your child to stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Practice when your child is calm. Then, when you see her getting upset, remind her about the steps and do them with her. After a while she’ll start to do it on her own so that she can express her feelings in a helpful and appropriate way.