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Turning the Tide at Harvard

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (February 25, 2016)

I once attended a talk regarding college admissions where the speaker used to be an admissions officer at Harvard. I sat in the lecture room as swarms of parents filled the seats of the room, eagerly awaiting the highly anticipated advice that this admissions guru would share with them. This lady shared her experience in admitting students to Harvard and how it has become even more competitive over the years. You could see the tension level of the parents rising in the room as many of them scribbled down notes and took photos of the slideshow presentation. As the talk drew to a close, the audience was invited to ask questions. I was so surprised when the mother of an 8-year-old started asking how she can best prepare her child to be able to get into Harvard. And then a parent boldly asked whether making sizable donations to the school would ensure placement. All in all, it was an eye opening experience for me and one that showed how eager parents are to get their children into Ivy League schools. I’m sure there are many reasons they would want their children to go to such schools – a high quality education, future upward mobility, prestige and pride perhaps. Whatever the case, it was obvious that parents were willing to do whatever it takes to get their children into such top-league schools.

And traditionally, what it means to get into these schools is to get perfect GPA scores, play 3 instruments, be in 5 sports teams, have multiple awards and accolades and a spectacular admission essay. All of these still seem to be appreciated but a new paper just came out from Harvard’s ‘Making Caring Common Project’. This paper is endorsed by over 80 U.S. colleges including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Brown and many others whereby it talks about turning the tide for college admissions. In the paper, it highlights 3 main areas of criteria for admission:

 promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service, and engagement with the public good;

 assessing students’ ethical character and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture, and class; and

 redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.

So it looks like even Ivy League schools are valuing character and the contribution people make to the community. What does this mean for us as parents and educators?

1) Character Matters

‘Ethical character’ isn’t something that is birthed overnight – it is the moulding of a person that takes years to develop. Recognizing that character matters and deserves attention and investment is the first step. Do you promote taking shortcuts that save time or showing integrity and excellence in the work done? Do you choose something with selfish gain or selfless giving to others? These decisions determine a person’s character.

2) Care about Contributing

Caring for others and contributing to the community (be it family, friends or the wider community) is no longer a ‘nice to have’ item on the list of admission requirements. It is becoming an essential component. I don’t believe in contributing to the community for the sake of having something to write in a school application because it makes something selfless into something selfish but in order for the caring to be genuine, it has to start from a young age to be made into a ‘lifestyle’ and not a ‘to do item’ for admissions purposes. Get children to start caring from a young age and it will come naturally for them for the rest of their lives.

Let’s join Harvard in #TurningTheTide and make Caring, Character and Contribution Common!


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