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New Criteria For College Admissions?

Wes Beach shares a report from Harvard indicating that admissions criteria will be emphasizing more community service and "concern for others and the common good." It might be helpful for applicants to tell about their formative life experiences - about your interests, strengths, weaknesses, talents, accomplishments, and goals. A refreshing shift from class ranking, test scores, and school-only activities!

In mid-January of this year, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report titled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. This report was endorsed by a substantial number of college admissions officials, professors, university administrators, schools, and others.Turning the Tide recommends changing the emphasis in criteria for college admissions. The report includes six recommendations about judging applicants’ contributions to others and their community service. Five other recommendations suggest “reducing undue achievement pressure, redefining achievement, and leveling the playing field for economically diverse students.” As the title indicates, the emphasis is on considering “concern for others and the common good” in evaluating college applications.

Does this report matter?

In my opinion, the best suggestion in the report is to expand one’s ideas about what a good college is. As for the rest of the suggestions, whatever changes might be made in the specific criteria that are considered most important in college applications, there will still be a top-down, essentially one-size-fits-all way to admit young people to colleges and universities. The admissions process will remain an absurdly stressful, competitive race; see comments at the NY Times

Reflecting on my own experience

Here I’d like to comment on the recommended emphasis on community service.

In high school I did very well in my classes without expending much effort, and I was involved in student government and sports. Outside of school I mostly had fun, spending a lot of time with friends, especially my girlfriend. I had no thoughts about serving others and being an asset to the community.

I went from high school to UCLA, where I was shocked to encounter rigorous academic demands that high school had not prepared me for. I decided to go into education and work to change things so future high school students could profit from their high school experience more than I did. So I buckled down and did reasonably well, working toward a degree and a teaching credential so I could enter a service profession. But while at UCLA I had no thoughts about service to others and being an asset to the community. During the summer after my freshman year two friends and I built a boat so we could water ski, and during subsequent summers, and sometimes during the following school years, we spent a lot of time on the water. One of my friend’s sister tagged along, and on the same day I received my degree I married her.

I began my teaching career in 1961 at a junior high school in Los Angeles. where I spent five and a half years. After that I taught at five other schools: another junior high school, two K-8 schools, and two high schools. In 1993 I left the public school system and began working through my own private high school. I support kids who want and need something other than a traditional high school experience, and I’ve graduated nearly 1,500 young people who have gone on to succeed in an extraordinarily wide variety of vocations.

I have reason to believe that my working life has been one of service. On a day during the summer of 2010 I had brunch with five people (and some of their spouses) who had been among my first students at the junior high I’ve mentioned. I had not seen or heard from them for 45 years. It seemed clear from our conversation that we had all benefited from our shared time in a classroom. I was especially gratified that one person in this group who had become a teacher commented, “Your legacy has been passed on to thousands. Thanks for leading the way.”

Community service before college?

A decision to be of service can be made at any point in one’s life. My decision was made during my first year of college, and my service began after college. Some high school students are deeply engaged in service to their communities and deserve admiration and respect. But looking for community service that’s been performed before college as an admissions criterion for everyone seems to run the serious risk of putting the cart before the horse. Harvard itself makes this comment on its website: “. . . [W]e hope that students [at Harvard] will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents, assessing their values and interests, and learning how they can best serve the world.” If it’s Harvard’s intent that their students learn “how they can best serve the world,” what sense does it make to admit them because they have already served the world?

Another person’s experience

I can tell many stories of students I’ve worked with who have made decisions for a life of service during or after college. Here, briefly, is just one of them. A young woman spent one semester in high school, moved on to a community college, transferred to a four-year university and earned a degree in Radio and Television, New Media Emphasis. After several years working as a videographer, editor, and producer, she felt her career had little meaning or social value, and she decided to train for and live a life of service in nontraditional healing arts – a long-after-high-school decision to serve her community.

A more flexible, open approach

Lives unfold in highly varied ways, and contributions to our communities, country, and world are made in different ways and at different times. Instead of asking college applicants to present a record that focuses on anything specific – community service, or a spectacular academic record, saturated with AP courses or not, or deep engagement in some creative activity – it seems to me that a more open and flexible process would be much better.

Here’s my suggestion for a writing prompt for college application essays:

Tell us about your formative life experiences, both in school and outside of it, and about your interests, strengths, weaknesses, talents, accomplishments, and goals; include a detailed story or two about significant experiences that have made you who you are. Describe what makes you glow, both inside and out. Explain to us why you want to study at Rainbow University. If you have a sense (it’s perfectly okay if you don’t) of what direction you’d like to take after spending time with us, fill us in.

Wes Beach worked in public schools for 31 years and now directs Beach High School. He is also author of Forging Paths: Beyond Traditional Schooling and Opportunities After High School: Thoughts, Documents, Resources.

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