In admissions, character matters

A new report published by the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education calls for fundamental changes in the way colleges approach the admissions process.

The report, titled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions” was endorsed by a long list of administrators at top colleges and universities, including the entire Ivy League. It is a collaborative effort to change the focus of the admissions process from SAT scores, AP courses, and individual achievement, and place more emphasis on meaningful community service and intellectual engagement with others. By doing so, the report argues, students will become more ethically aware, make greater contributions to society, and be less burdened by the anxiety and stress of the college search.

As the emphasis in the college application process shifts to a new definition of achievement, admissions communications must adjust their core messages to inquiring students and their parents. Examples of community service and an emphasis on ethical behavior will need to take a bigger role in the way the school presents itself.

As colleges and universities begin to put more importance on an applicant’s character and commitment to others, and less on scores and AP courses, the character of the school itself becomes even more important. The essential DNA of a school is often hard to find in admissions materials, overwhelmed by attributes shared by so many institutions, such as challenging academics, strong faculty, low student/teacher ratios, perfect location, and great facilities.

To truly differentiate itself, the school should take a close look at its own reasons to exist. How and why was the institution founded? What are the ideals and mission that inform the way it educates? How does it walk the talk of contributing to the common good?

While the admissions process begins to redefine the kind of achievement expected from applicants, the school must reexamine its own core values, and the ways in which those values are part of the fabric of the place, its people, and its programs. Admissions messaging should demonstrate that the school is truly aligned with the new definition of achievement by which it evaluates applicants. This will require fewer infographics about employment metrics, and more highly believable stories about student, faculty, and institutional investment in service to others.