Sports, honor societies, community service hours and at least a handful of clubs: These are just a few of the things students are expected to include in their college applications. In high school, it’s often a contest for who can have the most extracurricular activities because students think they’ll be more appealing to college admissions officers.
But some people, including Harvard University professor and psychologist Richard Weissbourd, are now arguing that being a good person should be enough to get into competitive and prestigious universities. Weissbourd has been advocating for this through his report “Turning the Tide,” which encourages college deans at universities around the nation to change admissions processes to take the emphasis off of students’ laundry lists of extracurricular activities. More than 120 universities have already endorsed his report.
Weissbourd wants colleges to care about the time students spend working part-time jobs or taking care of sick family members. If Weissbourd had it his way, a part-time after-school job at a fast food joint would have the same weight as going to a robotics camp, because these activities help build students’ empathy and understanding of the world.
As GW continues its efforts to increase the diversity of its applicant pool, officials should get on board with Weissbourd’s plans by highlighting the importance of such activities.
Many students – especially those from low-income backgrounds – have familial obligations or need to take on part-time jobs that keep them from joining more teams or clubs at school. Although the Common Application gives students space to report any responsibilities and activities outside of school, Weissbourd says universities are usually not explicit in what applicants can report. This makes students think they cannot list things like part-time jobs, which could keep applicants from reporting obligations that take up significant amounts of time.
These types of students are at a disadvantage compared to their peers who have the money and time to jet off on service trips or play organized sports. But students who can’t participate in expensive activities still have valuable experiences and interests. These kids have to sacrifice the extra time they would have to do homework or take part in school-organized activities. Adding equal weight to activities like caregiving and part-time jobs would make the admissions process fair to students from low-income or otherwise less privileged backgrounds, because they wouldn’t worry that never serving as the president of a club will keep them out of their top-choice college.
Making a change in the admissions process would not only enable more low-income students to feel like they can apply and get into competitive, prestigious colleges, but would also encourage students to be more caring and ethical, in general. It’s certainly desirable for teenagers and young adults to be ambitious so they can go on to have successful careers, but the competition for an admissions letter has forced applicants to put themselves first over caring for other people just to achieve success.
About a dozen colleges have already responded to Weissbourd’s report by making changes to their admissions formats that will impact students who are applying this year. For example, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, students are still encouraged to take rigorous classes but only in the topics that truly interest them, instead of in all areas. And Yale University now only includes slots for two extracurricular activities.
When I look back at my junior year of high school, I remember the panic that set in when I realized I wasn’t doing what I thought would be enough to get into my top choice colleges and started joining clubs left and right. Thankfully, it didn’t keep me from being committed to my three most notable extracurriculars, but I wish I hadn’t felt compelled to join things just to list them on college applications. I had classmates who could not get involved in teams or clubs because they worked jobs after school, but they deserved to go to GW just as much, or even more, than I did.
Adopting a test-optional policy has significantly helped GW increase the number of applications it receives. The class of 2020 is the most diverse group of freshmen in University history, attracting both increases in low-income students and underrepresented minority groups.
But there are still steps that need to be taken to encourage qualified students who are not applying to GW for fear that their extracurriculars aren’t impressive enough. By adopting Weissbourd’s ideas into the admissions process, GW can create even more diverse classes full of empathetic and caring students.
Irene Ly, a junior majoring in psychology, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.