Good Grades, Extracurriculars, May Not Be All Colleges Look For Anymore

College Admission Standards Changing to Emphasize Community
WATCH College Admission Standards Changing to Emphasize Service

It was an early morning weekend in Rye, New York. While most kids were probably sleeping in, high school senior Chris Karpovich was doing some last-minute cramming.

In a few moments, he would take the SAT and emotions were running high as his mother drove him to the first test location.

“He has two SAT tests today,” said his mother, Sherri Falco. “He has just been very stressed out, he has a cold, and it’s raining… A lot of us go, ‘Oh high school that was when I had all the fun, that was when I did all those things, I hung out with my friends.’ He doesn’t really have time to do any of that.”

Chris, 17, attends Rye High School just north of New York City, one of the best public schools in the nation. On paper, he would seem like an excellent candidate for any prestigious university. He has near perfect grades, he’s captain of the cross country and debate teams and spends countless hours volunteering at Bread of Life, his mom and stepdad’s food pantry. He even created a branch at his school.

At Rye High School, chock full of high achievers, even his principal Pat Taylor says he’s a standout. “Christopher has really worked so hard and has been a very strong student but a really committed student,” she said. “He is sort of that model student in being able to balance his high school programs with what is important to him.”

For Chris and others his age, these many years of sacrificing huge chunks of their childhoods, he says, are all in the hopes of getting into his dream school, Harvard, where he is a double legacy -– both of his biological parents are Harvard grads.

But even his own mom sees the high toll it takes. “I try to make it stop. I say it needs to stop. Something needs to give” Falco says. You have to give up something because it’s too much. I can’t-- why not? Because this is what they are looking for.”

On a “bad night,” Chris said he gets about five hours of sleep. “With sports and everything, [it’s] not a lot,” he added. “Not as much as I would like to.”

His mother says she sees the effects the stress has on him.

“He is moody, he doesn’t sleep,” she said. “He seems fatigued. You shouldn’t see that on a teenager.”

But while Chris and millions of other stressed high school students are applying to college, obsessed with finding the perfect combination of good grades and activities to make their applications stand out, a change is underway that may re-vamp the college admissions system.

Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist and a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and School of Education, and his team at Harvard came out with a new report this week called “Turning the Tide,” which lambasted a national student body infatuated with high achievement over good character and called for sweeping recommendations to change what some see as a broken college admissions system.

“The argument that we are making is in our day and age, young people are too focused on achievement… and we need to send a more balanced set of messages,” Weissbourd said. “Everybody knows the system is irrational, that the system is out of whack.”

Their report, put out by Weissbourd's "Making Caring Common" group, offers recommendations, pragmatic yet ground breaking, that emphasize quality over quantity, encouraging fewer extracurricular activities, fewer AP courses and even, in some cases, making the SAT optional. Another recommendation is to look at how the student contributed to helping their families, not just community service.

“There is a community service Olympics going on in some communities to see who can have the most high-profile community service opportunity,” Weissbourd said. “We are also saying, that a lot of family contributions, low income kids who are working to support their families, who are babysitting for their younger siblings, taking care of sick relatives, often their contributions don’t count in the college admissions process. Or it’s not clear to students that they do count so they don’t report those on their college applications. So we are trying to make it clear in the college application that those contributions really do count.”

Meaning 4.0 GPAs, top test scores and a long list of extracurriculars might not be all Harvard, or other schools, are looking for anymore. The entire Ivy League, and more than 50 colleges nationwide have agreed to endorse Weissbourd and his team’s recommendations.

“The college process became stressful because people keep ratcheting each other up,” Weissbourd said. “Middle and upper class communities became very focused on a small number of colleges - 5 to 10 - very high status colleges.”

“Everyone wants to get their kids into those colleges,” he continued. “And parents start signaling to each other that these are the colleges that are most important to get your kids into and we are cheating our kids if we don’t get them in.”

Though there is no surefire way to ensure enforcement, MIT is already putting some of the recommendations into action.

“We added a question that asks students ‘how have you improved the lives of others, others around you.’” said Stuart Schmill, MIT’s Dean of Admissions. “We want to make sure we are filling MIT up with people who are going to add to the education and the lives of those around them.”

The new recommendations could help another Rye High School student, Sorcha McCrohan, a junior who won’t be applying to college until next year. She has a story that before may not have counted so heavily in the admissions process before, but now could have a greater impact.

“I was 11 when my mom died,” she said. “I had to become an adult when I was still in elementary school. It was tough not to have anyone there for elementary school graduation, or the ninth grade dance, but it taught me every time you fall down you’re going to come back stronger.”

Her mother, an architect and professor at Columbia University, died of meningitis. Her father was forced to work two jobs to support four kids. Sorcha stepped up to help care for her brother Connor, who has autism.

“I think it was a little hard with my brother being autistic but we kind of trucked through it,” Sorcha said. “People didn’t know how to interact with him. It was hard-- he didn’t go to our school he went to a different school. But we love him all the same.”

After her mother died, Sorcha founded a meningitis awareness club as a final promise to her mother to help others.

“When I had to say goodbye to my mom I remember I was just pulled out of school,” he said. “I remember… my fifth grader-self wrote down all these things I wanted to do in her honor in memory of my mom. One of them was for my club I wanted to make sure nobody in my community had to go what I go through every day of my life because my mom wasn’t vaccinated for meningitis.”

She hopes to walk the same campus as her mother. While her grades aren’t perfect, the new criteria would make personal service to help a sick relative or work a part time job to help support family financially count as a "caring community" as much as exotic "service projects" abroad. She hopes that the admissions team will see more than just her transcript and admit her for the full picture of who she is.

“I’m really excited for college. It’s like a chance to start over. I’m excited about the future,” she said.

For Chris, Harvard was always his goal. His mother Sherri says she tells her son there’s more to life than just Harvard, but said her son “insists that he has worked very hard.”

“He said, out of his mouth, ‘I have sacrificed so much I have to get into the best school possible,’” she said.

A month after Chris aced the SAT, he was busy putting the finishing touches on his Harvard application.

“I feel like applying to college is that same as asking a girl out. If they reject you feel bad in a sense but in the end you have to keep the big picture in mind,” Chris said. “I guess four years of high school sort of defines part of who you are. When college admissions officers are looking at it they say, this is what a student has given academically for four years. But I guess I’ve tried my hardest to do the best that I can in four years.”

In the end, it’s not the decision Chris was hoping for. He was deferred for early admission, and will have to wait until at least March for Harvard’s final decision. Although the new acceptance reform had not gone into effect at the time he applied, his disappointment was a study in understatement.

“It was hard for me because when you’re used to taking hard classes or studying a lot or your athletic careers, in the end the fact that a college says ‘maybe not now’ it’s kind of disappointing,” he said. “You feel you haven’t accomplished enough for someone to accept you. It was definitely not the best outcome but in the end it gives me an opportunity to look at a lot of other schools.”

In the meantime, Chris is continuing his applications to 17 additional schools.

“There’s Princeton, MIT, Yale, Cornell, UPenn, Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, Columbia, CalTech, Georgia Tech, University of Michigan and Harvard.”

A dream deferred for Chris, but it could be different next year for Sorcha. Her hours of sacrifice may just boost her application.

“Being here makes me think about my mom,” she said. “I’m super proud of her, my mom worked super hard for all of us.”