College Admission Standards Changing to Emphasize Service

As high school students wait to find out if they got accepted, dozens of schools announcing wide sweeping reforms.
8:24 | 01/22/16

Coming up in the next {{countdown}} {{countdownlbl}}

Coming up next:



Skip to this video now

Now Playing:


Related Extras
Related Videos
Video Transcript
Transcript for College Admission Standards Changing to Emphasize Service
You're about to meet two ambitious high school students who we've been following for months, drowning in course work and test prep in the mad dash towards college. But just this week 85 top schools, including the entire ivy league, signing on to try to tone down the pressure. With potentially game-changing proposals. So what does it mean for kids with big college dreams? It's an early weekend morning. And while most kids are sleeping in, Chris carpavich is cramming. There's just moments to go before he takes the S.A.T. And tensions are running high. Can you not jump out of the car? Mom, literally it's fine, I'll go walk. Mom. He's 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 that fun. That was when I did all those things. I hung out with my friends. He really doesn't have time to do any of that. Reporter: But while Chris and millions of stressed-out students are applying for the class of 2020, hell-bent on finding the fabled holy grail of that perfect application, a sea change is under way that threatens to revamp the very system on which admissions are based. In our day and age young people are too focused on achievement. We need to send a more balanced set of messages. Reporter: Richard Weiss of Harvard and his team publishing a new report called turning the tide, lambasting a student body obsessed with personal success over the common good. Calling for sweeping recommendations to what some see as a broken college admissions system. Everybody knows that the system's irrational, out of whack. Reporter: Parents are painfully aware of it too. Do you feel like college admirations just chokes all of the joy out of childhood? Yes. I say it needs to stop. Something needs to give. I can't. Why not? Because this is what "They" are looking for. Reporter: Chris is a senior at rye high school just north of New York City. Ambitious students and a rigorous curriculum making it one of the best public schools in the nation. This is ap scholar national honors society. This is the youth and philanthropy award. Reporter: Checking off boxes prestigious universities say they scout for. He has near-perfect grades, captain of the cross country and debate teams. And spends countless hours volunteering at bread of life, his parents' food pantry, even creating a chapter at his own school. How much sleep do you get a night? Five hours, maybe. He's moody. He doesn't sleep. You see fatigue. You shouldn't see that on a teenager. Reporter: But you do, on Chris and countless others. Years of sacrifice, huge chunks of his childhood, he says all in the hopes of getting into his dream school, Harvard, where both his parents went. What happens if you don't get into Harvard? Then -- my other choices. Hopefully it doesn't come to that. Reporter: With competition at an all-time high it very well might. Harvard university is ground zero for this reform movement. Pushing to turn down the heat on the pressure cooker. How did the college process become so stressful? Middle and upper-class communities became very focused on a small number of colleges are. Parents start signalling to each other these are the colleges that are most important to get your kids into. Reporter: The recommendations, pragmatic yet ground-breaking. Emphasizing quality over quantity. Encouraging fewer extracurricular activities. Fewer ap courses. Even in some cases making the S.A.T. Optional. So this is the big moment. Yep. Reporter: For Chris, as he's checking for his S.A.T. Results, it's far from optional. His chances of getting in, he thinks, along with his future, hangs in the balance. Are you nervous? My hands are getting clammy. The site's down. Oh my gosh. The site crashed. So many kids are checking them right now that the site's actually down. Do you ever try to tell him, honey, there's more to life than Har Harvard. I want him to go to the best school for him but he insists he's worked very hard -- out of his mouth, I have sacrificed so much, I have to get into the best school possible. Reporter: Across town the new recommendations could help students like sorca, a junior at rye high, who won't be applying until next year. Behind the smile a sadness and a story that before may not have counted so heavily in the admissions process. I was 11 years old and my mom died. So I really -- I had to become an adult when I was still in elementary school. Reporter: She lost her mom, an architect and professor at Columbia, to meningitis. Her father forced to work multiple jobs to support four kids. Sorcha helping care for her brother conner who has autism. People didn't know how to interact with him. We just love him all the same. This is me, Seamus, conner and I -- Reporter: She finds comfort in photographs and memories. This is my favorite photo of my mom. This one. People told me when I show them the photo, they say I look like my mom. You do look like her. Reporter: Sorcha founded a meningitis awareness club, a final promise to her mother to help others. I wanted to make sure that nobody in my community had to go through what I go through. So how is meningitis diagnosed? Reporter: She argues it's not just meaningful work in school but it's service like sorcha's, provided at home in a time of need, which should count as community service. A lot of family contributions, low-income kids especially, often their contributions don't count in the college admissions process. Reporter: A month later, Chris is busy putting the finishing touches on his Harvard application. Adding his near-perfect S.A.T. Scores. I hope colleges will see that I'm not just a bunch of Numbers. Reporter: Nothing left to do but wait. The ivy league and more than 50 colleges have endorsed the recommendations. Though there's no sure-fire way to ensure enforcement, mit is already putting them to work. We added a question, how have you improved the lives of others? It's all happening right here? It's all happening right here. I feel the heat coming off the door right now. How carefully do you pore over all the admissions? We look at every -- everything that comes in on every application. We look at every application more than once. I was amazed at how thorough we really are. Reporter: Back in New York, there's only four days to go until the Harvard decision. Your mom quoted you as saying you sacrificed so much. I've tried my hardest to sort of do the best that I can. They tell you, this is your future. That's the message he hears. Reporter: It's not the decision they'd hoped for. Chris is deferred. He'll have to wait until at least March for Harvard's final decision. It wasn't the best outcome. Reporter: His disappointment, a study in understatement. You feel like you haven't accomplished enough for someone to accept you, but in the end, I think that it gives me an opportunity to look at a lot of other schools. Reporter: Trying to keep things in perspective, some advice from his principal to help him absorb the blow. What's the 36-hour rule? If they are deferred or denied we say, 36 hours you pout, you feel bad for yourself, and you're going to start working and we're going to find another first choice. Reporter: Chris is doing just that. As he continues applying to 16 additional schools. There's princeton, mit, Yale, Cornell, u-penn, Carnegie medical son, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, university of Michigan, university of Washington, brown, dart mouth, northwestern. Reporter: A dream deferred perhaps for Chris but it could be different next year for sorcha. Her hours of personal sacrifice may boost her application, which in years past may not have counted so much. Being here makes me think about my mom. Reporter: As she walks the campus where her mother once taught she hopes her application may cap capture the fuller picture of who she is. A chance to start over. I'm excited about the future.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

{"id":36439630,"title":"College Admission Standards Changing to Emphasize Service","duration":"8:24","description":"As high school students wait to find out if they got accepted, dozens of schools announcing wide sweeping reforms. ","url":"/Nightline/video/college-admission-standards-changing-emphasize-community-service-36439630","section":"Nightline","mediaType":"default"}