How to Get Into a Good College, According to Harvard


The pressure of applying to college seems to multiply year by year, but there’s a push to make the process less stressful and more authentic.

Making Care Common, a Harvard Graduate School of Education project, released a report Wednesday called Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions. The report looks at some of the problematic superhuman aspects of college applications (like the long “brag sheet” of activities) and outlines ways for applicants — and admissions officers — to focus more on meaningful experiences.

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More than 80 universities, including all the Ivy League schools, have endorsed the report. Some, like Yale, are already making changes in their admissions process — on next year’s application, one essay question will ask students “to reflect on engagement with and contribution to their family, community and/or the public good,” Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, told the Washington Post Wednesday.

For high school students (along with their parents) thinking about college, here are a few quick tips:

Focus on “immersive” instead of “exotic.”
One of the goals of the report is to address the issue that high-income students have more opportunities than low-income students. The report states that “what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience.”

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Group projects can outweigh personal achievement.
Rather than individual service, students might focus on collaboration, especially working within their communities to help solve problems with others from diverse backgrounds. “These types of activities can help young people develop key emotional and ethical capacities, including problem-solving skills and group awareness, as well as greater understanding of and investment in the common good,” reads the report. Lead author Richard Weissbourd told PBS Wednesday that “part of what we’re motiving [applicants] to do is to do forms of community engagement that we think will be transformative for them.”

Value daily family contributions.
Taking care of siblings or older relatives, working within the home to help parents — these are things that the authors of the report want to recognize in the admissions process. “Students should have clear opportunities
to report these family contributions on their applications,” the report notes. “The nature of students’ day-to-day conduct should be weighed more heavily in admissions than the nature of students’ stints of service.”

Achievement is about quality, not quantity.
The report indicates that 10 AP (Advanced Placement) classes that skim various topics are not as meaningful as two or three that are truly engaging to a student and explored in depth. The same is true for extracurricular activities — it’s about deep, not broad, involvement.

Authenticity reigns.
Colleges want kids who are honest about and engaged in the topics and experiences they highlight on their applications. Confidence and an open, candid tone are good things. The report even suggests that admissions officers “consider inviting students (and families) to reflect on the ethical challenges they faced during the application process.”

A “good” college is one that’s right for you.
“Admissions officers and guidance counselors should challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success,” reads the report. “It is incumbent upon parents to challenge this misconception as well. There are many paths to professional success, and students and parents should be far more concerned with whether a college is a good fit for a student than how high status it is.”

Top photo: Getty Images

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