Harvard got a lot of positive press last year when it announced its report, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern For Others And The Common Good Through College Admissions. The Harvard Turning the Tide report found the current college admissions’ process is damaging to students. As Harvard states on its website, this report is “the first step in a two-year campaign that seeks to substantially reshape the existing college admissions process.” One year in on a two year campaign, has the Harvard admission process changed?
Other than some essay topics and some recommendations on the webpage for filling out the application for admission to Harvard, there are no obvious adjustments made to the application process. In a couple of places, there are still requirements in direct contradiction to specific recommendations of the Turning the Tide report. Given the significant problems with the current college admissions practices, detailed in the report, that’s disappointing.
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What is Turning the Tide and what are the Harvard application requirements?
What is the Harvard Turning the Tide Report?
The Harvard Turning the Tide report included “…concrete recommendations to reshape the college admissions process and promote greater ethical engagement among aspiring students, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students.”
It purported to represent “… the first time in history that a broad coalition of college admissions offices have joined forces to collectively encourage high school students to focus on meaningful ethical and intellectual engagement.”
It was considered significant enough to be covered extensively in the news, in stories such as AP Overload, Padded Resumes, Suicides: Why Harvard Is Pushing Elites to Rethink College Admissions. On ABC Nightline, College Admission Standards Changing to Emphasize Service told the story of two students and their college hopes.
What are Harvard’s admission requirements since releasing the Turning the Tide report?
Harvard announced that releasing Turning the Tide is “the first step in a two-year campaign that seeks to substantially reshape the existing college admissions process.” It would be reasonable to expect that to start to be reflected in the Harvard admissions process. Current application requirements are detailed on their website.
Application forms accepted by Harvard
Harvard does accept three different application forms, the Common Application, the Universal College Application, or the Coalition Application. What does this mean for the application process?
The Common Application
The Common Application has been around for years, so it can’t represent much of a change. Because it makes it easier to apply to multiple colleges, one result of its use may be to have increased the number of applicants for colleges that use it. (Which will decrease a college’s admission rate, and boost a college in the rankings. But it also means that students are less likely to get into a college they apply to, meaning they need to apply to more colleges. Even students who take a heavy AP class load and have high SAT scores face low odds of admission.
The Universal Application
The Universal College application is an alternative to the Common App, but used by far fewer colleges.
The Coalition Application
The Coalition Application launched in May 2016 and was announced in September 2015. Like Harvard’s Turning the Tide, it was was a response to inequalities and pressures created by the application process. It’s full name reflects its purpose, the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. It’s designed to be more flexible and customizable.
Turning the Tide has a press release date of January 20, 2016, , which is after the Coalition App’s launch. Turning the Tide is endorsed by the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, but is not specifically associated with it. Because the Coalition seems to have come first, accepting it for admission can’t be a change made on the basis of the Turning the Tide report.
Application Essay Topics
Aside from some possible essay topics, nothing in any of the three applications seems to address the issues brought up in the Turning the Tide report, even when I read the Application Supplement to the Universal Application. Essay questions are in fact one focus suggested in Turning the Tide for college application changes, but is that enough?
Reading the applications further can give an idea of what types of information are still important to the application process.
Extracurriculars for application to Harvard
“The Common App activity section allows students to provide up to 10 activities from their high school resume; the Coalition App first asks for your top two and then allows you to provide up to eight.” Source: Common App vs. Coalition App: Which to choose?
What is the likely anxious applicant interpretation?
It is going to look empty if you only list two or three activities.
You better have at least eight extra-curriculars.
This is even though the Harvard Report Turning the Tide Recommendation #1 is that there not be space for more than 2-4 activities.
However, if you read Harvard’s application “tips” on their website, they do emphasize that you do not need to fill up the grid, and they acknowledge family commitments and restraints. This was the biggest concession I saw to the Turning the Tide report.
But aside from that, as the Common App is taken by a large number of colleges, it continues to give the perception that you need 10 extra-curriculars to get into any “good” college, especially a school such as Harvard.
This is also typically the area where students stress over whether or not they have any extra-curriculars that demonstrate leadership as defined by colleges. How “leadership” is another concept that has become distorted by the college application process is explored in the Inside Higher Ed Opinion column, Ethical College Admissions: Leadership.
Standardized tests for Application to Harvard
SAT or ACT
Harvard asks for an SAT or ACT score. There seems to be a good consensus that standardized tests scores aren’t perfect, but are an indication of how well students will do in college. So requiring one standardized test score is reasonable.
Under further information, Harvard says “There are no score cutoffs, and we do not admit “by the numbers.”” This seems to be trying to address the pressure of high standardized test scores. However, they go on to say, “For the SAT, we will review your highest test scores…” (Although elsewhere they say they do not superscore.)
If you were a student who is determined to go to Harvard, how would you interpret that information?
SAT Subject Tests
In addition to the ACT or general SAT, Harvard also asks for —
This is more standardized tests than most, less selective (meaning they have a higher acceptance rate) colleges. This confirms what I’ve heard from parents whose kids are applying to places like Harvard, that they need multiple SAT subject tests. Requiring subject tests greatly increases the number of standardized tests a student takes. (Three times as many – 3 tests as opposed to possibly one general test.)
An interesting thing to note, both SAT Subject Tests and AP Subject Tests are administered by the College Board. They are considered different enough that students prep separately for them. So most students who take SAT subject tests are also taking duplicate subject tests, from the same company, as AP tests. But while Harvard leaves their wording a little open-ended, no where do the say that if you have AP or IB tests you won’t need the two SAT subject tests.
And while you’ll often hear that colleges now want depth instead of “well-rounded” at the cost of over-whelmed, Harvard specifically says that your SAT subject tests should not be too similar, like two SAT math tests.
High School counselor submitted School Reports required by Harvard
In addition to a high school transcript, Harvard requires an applicant’s high school counselor to submit a “School Report.” This is not required by all colleges, but a select few.
If a student is lucky, their counselor had the means to attend the $1800 Harvard Summer Institute on College Admissions. It’s actually organized with cooperation by several universities, and the extensive reading list seems to try to address inequality in admissions and grade elitism. But with sessions on subjects such as “How admissions decisions are made,” “Writing recommendations,” and “Secondary school profiles,” among others, counselors who are able to attend may be better equipped to answer some of the questions on Harvard’s School Report.
On the School Report to accompany the Universal Application for Harvard, in addition to the student’s class rank, unweighted GPA, and weighted GPA, they also ask the “Highest GPA in [the] class.”
They ask if the school “… limit[s] the number of AP classes a student can take.” (The only good excuse for not taking all AP classes?)
And they ask the counselor to rank the difficulty of the applicant’s class choices against other college-bound students in their high school, from “Less than challenging” to “Most challenging.”
At the very least, these questions perpetuate the idea noted in Turning the Tide Recommendation #2, ” Too often there is the perception that [students who take small numbers of AP classes] are penalized in the admissions process.”
Supplemental Application Materials
Are you a primary author on a research or scholarly paper? Harvard wants to make sure you have a way to submit that as part of your application. To be fair, you can also submit digital artwork or videos under this same area. But Harvard makes it obvious that some applicants have these graduate school level credentials, such as research, while they’re still in high school.
They do say under admission tips that most applicants are admitted without supplemental materials, but that particular message isn’t very strong. Other colleges give options for providing supplemental materials, such as fine art materials, without giving such extreme examples of graduate student level work, to set expectations.
Is Harvard “turning the tide”
I am not a college admissions adviser and don’t have any direct experience with Harvard admissions. However, as a concerned and involved parent, I have witnessed the effect that college admission requirements is having on our teens. Harvard and other elite colleges lead in the college admissions process.
Aside from some lip-service, Harvard’s admissions process does not appear to have any changes that make any concessions to their own findings that the current college application process is harmful to students and our society.
They still require not just one, but multiple standardized tests.
They still ask high school counselors pointed questions to try to suss out whether or not the applicant out-performs their peers on a strictly academic level, to extremes they have identified as harmful in their own report.
It is possible that in their selection process, their analysis and evaluation of the essays becomes apparent. However, just a few students getting admitted on a basis other than outstanding test scores and class rank wouldn’t be significant. A small number of students have always gained admittance in this way.
Perhaps the changes Harvard has made in their selection process will become apparent in their admissions process. Let me know in the comments if you have seen any evidence in admissions to Harvard that show they are starting to make changes!
I agree with the report, that changes to the damaging college admissions process will require the cooperation of many universities. Changes by those perceived to be at the top are especially important, but unfortunately, Harvard does not appear to be leading the way.
I noticed a significant point when I looked at the Turning the Tide report on Harvard’s website that may explain this difference between the finding in the report, Turning the Tide, and Harvard’s admission process. Turning the Tide was NOT published by Harvard’s admission’s department. Turning the Tide was published by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. You know, the Harvard experts that everyone is supposed to hold in high esteem.
Harvard is not alone in ignoring their own experts. Find out what other elite university is ignoring their own researchers about the harm their admission requirements are causing to our children.
Do you think Harvard should respond to its own Turning the Tide report and charge it’s admission requirements? Please share this post! Thank you!