Applying to college is stress-filled during the best of times. But in the age of coronavirus, the annual effort by high school students to combine their grades, recommendations, test scores, extracurricular activities, and personal essays into standout applications has sent anxiety levels soaring. Some high schools have gone to pass/fail grading, sparking fears about the fallout for GPAs; many extracurriculars have been canceled; and dozens of colleges, including Harvard, have waived standardized tests as a requirement for Class of 2025 applicants, raising concerns among those who feel particularly confident about their test-taking skills. Last week, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a statement from more than 300 college admissions deans, including William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard College’s dean of admissions and financial aid, that aims to ease fears by clarifying what the administrators value in applicants during such uncertain times. The Gazette spoke with Richard Weissbourd, faculty director for Making Caring Common’s Turning the Tide, an HGSE initiative focused on underscoring what is important in college admissions, about the statement and how admissions might permanently change in the wake of the pandemic.
GAZETTE: Why did you feel it was important to release this statement from the deans?
WEISSBOURD: There are several reasons, including the misinformation swirling out there. A lot of people have anxieties and questions because it’s such an uncertain time with the SAT and ACT being canceled until the fall, many schools going pass-fail, and other changes. So, it was partly to respond to that anxiety and the deans feeling that they could post things on their websites and communicate with parents individually, but that if they spoke collectively, it might break through a lot of the misinformation and provide reassurance and clarity to students and parents.
Two other things that we were very interested in, and something we work a lot on with admissions deans at Making Caring Common, are equity and assessing context. It’s really important to understand the challenges that kids are facing, to acknowledge that those challenges have suddenly become much bigger, and that you can’t really assess kids fairly unless you understand that context. For example, if a kid is taking care of a sick relative 20 hours a week or supervising a younger sibling 20 hours a week and they’re just getting to their schoolwork and getting B’s and C’s, that’s really impressive and that’s often not captured in an application. Right now kids are home all the time, they may not have a quiet place to read, and they may not have access to the internet. These are the kinds of additional challenges that have been piled on. As a matter of equity, I think deans need to assess and take into account those challenges. The statement encourages students to report these challenges and obstacles and reassures students that what they write will be confidential and will only lead to a more positive review of their applications. A lot of students don’t think to report obstacles in their lives for a variety of reasons, and so we felt encouraging them is very important.
The deans also really authentically want to communicate the message that self-care is important, that students should be gentle with themselves, and that during this difficult time, the goal is not doing extraordinary service of some kind. They want to make it clear that helping address issues with COVID-19 or working for racial justice or registering people to vote are clearly valuable ways to spend one’s time for those who are able. But they don’t want to create a pandemic service Olympics where students are seeking out high-profile opportunities to bolster their resumes. They also want students to know they will primarily base the evaluation of their academic achievements on their work before and after the pandemic.
GAZETTE: Do you think this is a moment for admissions offices to consider reforming the college application process?
WEISSBOURD: I hope so. I hope this is a laboratory moment, a moment where people really try different things and see what the outcome is of trying those different things. A silver lining in this pandemic is that it has created opportunities to rethink and reimagine many things, and college admissions is one of them. A lot of colleges are not going to have standardized test results for many students. And so they’re going to have to figure out alternative forms of assessment or look more deeply into the data that they do have. And what if it turns out that having the SAT or ACT didn’t matter, that they’re still admitting pools of students who are just as engaged and doing just as well without students having to experience the stress and stigma of the high-stakes testing? I think it’s an opportunity to try forms of assessment that don’t clearly favor those with privilege. It’s also an opportunity for admission offices that can do it to try things like short online interviews, or to have students respond to brief prompts on video. It would also be great if an organization emerged that could evaluate actual student work.