Harvard’s proposed admissions plan will fail to promote genuine altruism

March 24, 2016 — by Divya Rallabandi and Austin Wang

What does it take to get into Harvard? Traditionally, a combination of high GPA, perfect or nearly perfect SAT scores and a plethora of research internships would give applicants a fair chance.

What does it take to get into Harvard? Traditionally, a combination of high GPA, perfect or nearly perfect SAT scores and a plethora of research internships would give applicants a fair chance.

However, as academic competition continues to rise with each class being more populated and accomplished than the last, more and more high school students are being crushed under the stressful pressures of the academic standards needed to be a strong candidate for admissions to elite universities.

In order to reduce academic pressure and foster an emphasis on genuine care for one’s community, Harvard is attempting to shift the focus of college admissions from personal achievement to activism in one’s community, as outlined in its Graduate School of Education’s 2016 report “Turning the Tide.”

The report found that college admissions have huge effects on their students’ attitudes and argued that colleges ought to value ethical engagement in order to create a kinder generation of graduates.

But while fostering ethical engagement in students is a worthy cause, changes to college admissions guidelines won’t be a panacea against all of these ills. Instead of lowering student stress, the proposals of “Turning the Tide” may in fact shift competition from academic coursework to community service.

With the new system, many students would compete for the most altruistic-sounding volunteer opportunities. Conceivably, students could take advantage of the hardships of those in need for the sake of college applications. Charity organizations could find themselves with a constant stream of untrained, undedicated high school volunteers looking for easy volunteer hours instead of truly dedicated workers.

Although this influx of workers may benefit organizations in the short term, it is unsustainable. After getting into college, students with this mindset would likely quit and charities would continue to lack motivated volunteers who could take on leadership positions.

Colleges would also find themselves with the nearly impossible task of differentiating genuine care for a community with volunteer work done just for the admissions process. After all, colleges cannot exactly quantify character, and would be hard-pressed to discern between activities geared toward a favorable image and those derived from genuine interest.

Harvard has also said that it will offer ways for students to report how they help around their own households in order to help underprivileged teens. Currently, many low-income families rely on their kids to help around the house or work part time, leaving them with less time to volunteer and do school work. Harvard hopes its plan will allow students in such families to benefit their community in a way which will not subtract from the family income.  

However, this system could be easily abused, as students could merely lie about the strenuous chores they complete, or do them with a skewed motive in mind, defeating the purpose of truly assisting one’s family in the first place. Since the whole point of implementing “Turning the Tide” is to develop an intention to help communities, allowing students to simply say that they have benefited communities for the sake of college trumps the whole intention.

And while the Harvard report hopes that its new ideas will serve as a momentous step in limiting what author Julie Lythcott-Haims coined a “checklist childhood” in her book, “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” the college’s new mindset will only replace old items on the checklist, such as notable honors and awards, with items such as volunteering and charity work.

Instead of merely increasing the focus on volunteer work and community engagement, colleges should also reduce the importance of AP classes by adopting the UC system policy of only giving grade bumps for two AP classes per semester. Change can also start at the high school level with teachers decreasing test and homework based course-load in favor of projects aimed at helping society, such as the English 10 social justice issues presentation in which students write and present an essay on a social justice issue of their choice.

By emphasizing genuine care for society at a local level and reducing the emphasis on AP courses, students are more likely to take part in activities that have personal meaning to them, rather than helping others solely for the goal of getting into college.

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