Admissions And The Value of Expectations
Expectations often influence our lives’ path and direction. Expectations from future jobs or graduate school can affect our choice of major, summer plans, and extra-curricular activities. Many students pursue fields of study or internships which conform to these job market requirements. While for some these plans coincide with their passions and interests and lead to fruitful opportunities, others pursue areas outside of their passions in order to better prepare themselves to fit into the workforce. This can lead to the dulling of interests and the development of marketplace skills instead of personal reformation.
David Brooks, in a famous 2015 New York Times article, offers a similar distinction when comparing resume virtues and eulogy virtues. He argues that our culture places extreme value and importance on resume virtues which are skills that lead towards jobs and the achievements required for marketplace success. Contrastingly, eulogy virtues, which represent moral characteristics like kindness and caring, are undervalued by our society. Since our society doesn’t expect this kind of moral reformation, we too often ignore these moral values in pursuit of perfect resumes.
While this trend pervades throughout our culture, a recent study from the Harvard group “Making Caring Common” pointed to its troubling placement in the college admissions process and its deleterious effects on young high schoolers. The study, entitled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions” (http://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/collegeadmissions), notes how the applications for many colleges place extreme value on academic success and broad extracurricular involvement, with little expectations for communal involvement or moral contributions, among other issues.
The study points to three main issues. Firstly, colleges place intense pressure on test scores and advanced courses, often encouraging students to enroll in far more courses than they can handle, and increasing the pressure and stress of their high school years. Secondly, the applications themselves often encourage students to list as many extracurricular activities as they can, and work with parents or other mentors to produce perfect looking transcripts and essays, instead of expressing their own personalities and passions. Thirdly, these applications offer no incentive for students to participate in moral work, and no opportunity for students to list contributions like family involvement or jobs they obtain to help bring income for their families. The study argues that the college admissions process thus produces students who work slavishly to attain high academic achievements, while caring less about their passions and moral contributions.
Simply recalling my own college application experience, or perusing the Yeshiva University Honors Application requirements, confirms many of these claims. In terms of the test scores, the YU honors application sets a strict minimum score of 1400 on the SAT’s or 32 on the ACT’s, in addition to their recommendations for multiple advanced courses.
On the extracurricular side, the application encourages students to participate in multiple academic or athletic teams, and “lead at least one.” Further, the applications offer no direct forum for students to express their passion and commitment to these activities, but simply to list as many as they can. To Yeshiva University’s credit, the essay section of the honors application has moved farther towards this personal approach, with one essay explicitly requiring personal/creative expression, and even allowing students to choose their own medium for this essay to further display their personality. However, the list of honors requirements still reminds students that honors essays are “error-proof and reflect sophisticated critical responses.” Disclaimers like these often encourage parental involvement in these essays, lessening the personal expression available to the applicant.
In terms of communal or moral involvement, though these attributes can be expressed in letters of recommendation or in essays, the opportunities are far less significant and apparent to the student than academic achievement or extracurricular involvement. In those areas student see clear expectations, as well as defined areas to express their successes.
This system of expectations, found in admissions processes across the country, sends the wrong message to young high schoolers. Obviously, an Honors college expects academic success from its applicants and its application should reflect that. But higher education, and Yeshiva University specifically, should also expect passionate students. Students with unique personalities and interests. Students who are searching to contribute to the world. Students who remain committed to helping their families and communities.
At a time when colleges across the country have endorsed Making Caring Common’s study, and sought to shift the expectations of their admissions process, Yeshiva University should join this movement and seriously examine many of the recommendations offered by this study. Our application should allow students not to simply list their extracurricular involvements, but to express their passions for these activities. We should encourage students not to over-extend themselves academically, and to think deeply about not just their personal academic success, but also about helping the world around them. Students who spend significant time contributing to familial responsibilities should know that Yeshiva University values family commitment.
Expectations convey our system of values and help cultivate the minds of students. The expectations for our university should thus reflect the values of our university, which though rooted in education, also encourage the development of passions and moral involvement.
We must extend this message beyond our admissions office to our own campus community. While many elements in our culture only value personal success and marketable skills, our campus can and should develop its own culture of expectations. We should remind our friends and colleagues around us that our community values kindness, honesty, and the exploration of passions.
Expectations lead to actions. The more we expect this type of behavior from ourselves and the community around us, the more we will see this behaviour in our campus community.