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What are College Admissions Officers Talking About Today?

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Oct 25, 2012 1:55:00 PM

“Education access is the civil rights issue of our time.”  -Eduardo Padron, President of Miami Dade College. 10/24/12 at the College Board Forum.

Hello from the College Board Forum at the Fountainebleu Hotel in South Beach, Miami. There are over 2000 college admissions officers and guidance counselors here discussing “Investing in Education.”

It is a big moment, with a new president of the College Board, and I am quite aware of the work we need to do moving forward to connect students with their highest achievements and purpose in high school, college—and especially life. 

In a panel called “The ‘Ideal’ High School Graduate: The Conversation Continues,” high school counselors and college admissions officers from Yale, Rochester, and Brandeis discussed the gaps between what colleges are looking for in students’ applications and what students most often reveal. The discussion wasn’t so much about what colleges want, as how an increasingly outcomes driven admissions process has skewed students’ education and life choices:   Character: Several panelists mentioned recent cheating scandals at top high schools and colleges (Stuyvesant, Harvard), and how this is echoed in the news from business, finance, and journalism.  Students live in a world where “Achievement trumps character,” said Jon Burdick, Dean of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid at the University of Rochester. College Admissions, on the other hand is all about character. Colleges are looking for young people with character and especially integrity. Not the person who does generalized “community service,” but the person who is doing that work with a sense of purpose and commitment.

Grit:  Colleges want students who will make the most of what college has to offer. So they look for students who have persevered through adversity and learned from real life challenges, rather than people who make excuses or who expect other people to solve life’s problems for them.  Parents and children alike should read Paul Tough’s writing on grit. Here’s an excerpt.

And colleges want essays that sound 17: “We react negatively to anything that looks 42 and packaged,” said Marcia Landesman, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale.  This confirms what we learned at a meeting of New York state admissions officers this summer. Colleges are looking for students who are authentic and real; no one else can do that work for you.

David Coleman, the new president of the College Board spoke about the need to expand “equity and excellence” throughout K-12 education. He spoke of “two walls” that limit educational excellence in the United States: high school achievement has stalled, and there are huge gaps of race and class at the highest levels of academic achievement. He committed the College Board to leading an effort to increase rigor in US high schools, to creating a program like Advanced Placement that can expand educational achievement in middle school, and to making the College Board’s data available to outside researchers.

Coleman ended his talk with an inspired reading and discussion of Martha Graham’s Blood Memory: An Autobiography:

“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing, or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated, precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, the sense of one’s being, the satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God. Practice means to perform over and over again, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the practice desired.”

Along with sand, and sweat, the themes of practice, work, and rigor—and of putting yourself entirely into learning and life—are my big takeaways from South Beach.

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Topics:college admission