January 22, 2016

New Report: Applicants Must Know that Character Counts

Participants in the college admissions process should weigh ethics and character when preparing and considering applications, argues a recently released report endorsed by the head of the University of Chicago’s admissions office.

“Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions” was released Wednesday by the Making Caring Common Project, a project by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that explores how education can make people more ethical.

Jim Nondorf, the University of Chicago’s dean of admissions, was one of a group of 85 admissions and education professionals to sign on to the report. Representatives of every Ivy League school and some elite preparatory schools were among the other signees.

“As a liberal arts college specifically, as a highly selective institution specifically, all of this is a really good message to support. Because it’s the message you try to get out to your applicants. You try to tell students and family and high school communities [that] it’s not about gaming a system… it’s about what we really value,” Veronica Hauad, the director of equity and access programming in the University of Chicago’s admissions office, said.

The report argues that the admissions process often signals to applicants that colleges value individual achievement rather than character or commitment to community.

“Ultimately, we cannot bring about a sea change in the messages our culture sends to young people unless educational institutions at every level elevate and embody a healthier set of values... In the face of deeply troubling trends that only seem to be worsening, it is time to say ‘Enough’,” the report reads.

Two groups of students, the reports says, are poorly served by an application process that focuses on individual achievement: low-income and first generation applicants with few opportunities to build conventional resumes, and well-off applicants pressured to take every academic or extracurricular opportunities offered to them.

To help low-income and first generation applicants, the report says, colleges should make clear to applicants that they will value work to support their families inside and outside of the home as a form of community engagement.

The report suggests that better-off applicants should be told that stacking up extracurriculars and Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, or taking standardized tests multiple times will not necessarily improve their chances of admission.

The report emphasizes community service but encourages colleges to communicate that exotic or flashy service will not be valued more than meaningful service that is more modest or closer to home. This new emphasis, the report says, will mean that students will benefit even when trying to “game” the system.

“I think when you go on quality of character, it’s hard not to notice when someone’s not being authentic or genuine,” Hauad said.

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