Why US universities are changing what they look for in students, and how Asians are affected
A growing number of America’s elite universities are looking at more than just test scores when determining admission, instead focusing on attributes such as altruism and passion for worthwhile causes
Changwook Shim displays formidable academic credentials. The Hong Kong International School (HKIS) student has a grade point average of 3.9 (out of a possible 4), scored 2,320 out of a possible 2,400 on his SAT, and earned 35 out of a possible 36 in the ACT college admissions test.
He is just as impressive outside the classroom. Now 18, Shim has led the HKIS volleyball and debating teams, and plays the viola for his school orchestra and the Hong Kong Youth Symphony Orchestra. And as president of the North Korean Refugee Club, he recruited fellow students to make videos to teach English to refugees living in South Korea.
A maths whiz, he represented Hong Kong and his school in prestigious maths competitions, completed a University of Hong Kong undergraduate linear algebra course with distinction during a maths camp, and takes time to tutor students struggling with the subject.
“Chang’s a natural,” says HKIS guidance counsellor Madeleine McGarrity. “His face lights up just talking about mathematics. He’s a role model and mentor to younger students, gives 100 per cent in everything he does, always ready to help, loves learning, asks lots of questions.”
With such an excellent track record, the offer that Shim received to study maths at the University of Pennsylvania this year may seem a matter of course. But for many bright students, getting the education they want is less straightforward, and candidates often take up a plethora of causes or activities to bolster their résumés in the the quest for places at leading US universities.
An authoritative new report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education points to a US-wide movement to reform college admissions and cultivate a concern for the broader interests of society instead of focusing on individual success.
Until the changes are rolled out, however, competition for university places will be fiercer than ever.
These days hundreds of students achieve the maximum 2,400 points on their SATs and thousands score 2200 and above. Each year US college admissions officers are swamped by applications from high performers, including international students, who are also actively engaged outside high school. Some may have launched thriving community enterprises; many volunteer around the world. Then there are candidates such as Malala Yousafzai (the Nobel peace prize winner applied to study at Stanford University).
Yet at a time when the calibre – and the number - of applicants – has risen, undergraduate intakes at top US universities such as those in the Ivy League have largely remained the same, educators say. An exception is Yale, which is expanding its campus facilities to accommodate increased enrolment.)
That means some universities admit fewer than 10 per cent of applicants, and reject talented candidates of diverse backgrounds who would have made the cut years ago when acceptance rates ranged between 20 per cent and 30 per cent.
Entry to British or Australian universities is more predictable, being based primarily on academic results. Selection criteria at leading American universities are broader, and include factors such as community service and extracurricular interests. Still, the process can be unfathomable – some candidates with excellent overall credentials have been astonished to find themselves rejected when others with poorer results were admitted.
At HKIS, preparations for college application begin in junior high when students are encouraged to take on a balanced load of academic courses and extracurricular activities.
“Pick one or two passions, join a club of your interest or create your own club,” McGarrity advises. “When students discover a passion, they’re naturally motivated to engage and persist in it. Participation over time develops the student’s character, commitment, sense of responsibility and leadership. There’s no wrong activity. It’s recognising early what the student loves to do.”
Heather Pineda, university counselling director at Dulwich College Beijing, agrees. She describes the Dulwich students being admitted to Harvard, Barnard and Northwestern universities this September as “not so much well-rounded but pointy” – meaning they each have a particular passion, and genuinely, legitimately love what they do.
For instance, one teenager who was accepted to study computer technology at Cornell had designed a programme to train teachers, parents and fellow Dulwich students in using technology.
“These kids are inherently intelligent and have time to pursue other interests while maintaining near perfect grades. They’re the best to work with because there’s no need to convince them to do cool things outside of school,” Pineda says.
Shim’s extracurricular activities clearly reflect his passion for mathematics and music. He carefully selected a few other activities to which he can devote his time and energy, rather than packing his résumé with leadership positions across multiple clubs and teams.
While colleges require candidates to list their extracurricular activities, that’s definitely not the primary motivator for his participation.
“I believe if students pursue their genuine passion in their activities, it will naturally look good on the application. Joining clubs for the sake of college application would probably hurt our chances,” Shim says.
Dulwich and HKIS require their students to research all the universities they apply to – the institution’s ethos, values, curriculum and faculty, among others – to demonstrate an informed interest and help convince the admissions officer of the school’s fit.
“Outstanding academics does not guarantee university admission,” Pineda warns. When institutions are choosing between an academically brilliant but self-contained student with a 2,400 SAT score who has little to offer other than study, and someone with a 2,200 score who shows commitment to a cause, they may well opt for the latter.
Admissions officers read through applicants’ supplementary writings and personal statements to discern the individual’s personality, Pineda says. Authenticity will come through in the continuity and singular voice of the writing, while those mixed with other voices, doctored phrases or falsehoods inconsistent with the rest of the application confuse more than impress.
McGarrity also urges students not to “package” themselves into their idea of an ideal candidate.
“Colleges are not after strategies, which could fail. They want to focus on what the student wants, not what the school wants,” she says. “Be authentic; follow your heart.”
The school counsellors’ observations echo the recommendations set out in “Turning the Tide”, a report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education released in January.
Subtitled “Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions”, the report is a response to a widespread culture that pushes young people to emphasise narrow academic performance and personal success.
The report is endorsed by a coalition of university admission offices across the US, and is as much a blueprint for reform as a manual of established practices and principles in deciding on college intakes.
It argues that university admissions canshape a student’s character by clearly signalling that schools highly value moral and ethical attributes. Community servicethat stem from the student’s passion is more likely to promote empathy and altruism.
Admission offices should be alert to expensive, high-profile services in exotic places that appear “inauthentic or trumped up” and focus more on the depth of engagement rather than the number of accomplishments in the candidate’s long list of activities, the report adds. It calls for students to list no more than four activities with meaningful engagements in future applications.
These recommendations dovetail with McGarrity’s advice to students to “pick one or two passions” ... as well as Shim’s choice of a few activities for deeper engagement.
Coming from a Korean family (his father’s job as an economist took the family to California and Switzerland before they came to Hong Kong), Shim has an instinctive interest in the plight of refugees from North Korea. Admissions officers would also evaluate this through his efforts to teach English and buy school supplies for the refugees.
The Harvard report recommends making admission tests such as SAT optional in order to counteract the destructive pressure on teenagers to achieve high scores. It also helps good universities recruit from low-income families who may not excel in tests but have great potential. Besides the candidates’ academic credentials, their moral character and engagement in society count just as much.
The call to reassess the definition of “achievement” in college admissions will be challenging for many success-driven Asians, especially students who rely heavily on high test scores to gain admission to an elite university.
“Many American students from affluent communities also feel this pressure to focus on their personal achievements – often at a great cost to their health and well-being,” says Alison Cashin, media director of the project that published the Harvard report.
Released from gruelling studies for their SATs, young people will hopefully be able devote more time to engage with the community and have a renewed perspective of their goals in life. They may realise that an Ivy League education is not necessarily the key to future success, says American sociologist Dr Michael Lindsay.
In interviewing 550 US government and business leaders for his study Leadership from the Halls of Power, he found only 14 per cent attended Ivy League universities.
“While it’s important to graduate from college, the cultural and social capital gained at elite schools which help job interviews can be gained in other ways,” says Lindsay, president of Gordon College in Boston.
Nearly three-quarters of the leaders he interviewed gained a variety of skills from trying different jobs, he adds. They have an entrepreneurial spirit and made the most of their youth.
“It’s important to persevere through any trial, even that of rejection to an elite school, which create the kind of grit and resilience that is invaluable to any great leader,” he says.
The Harvard report concludes by urging students to consider the broad range of excellent colleges across the US: “There are many paths to professional success, and students and parents should be far more concerned with whether a college is a good fit for a student than how high-status it is.”
Shim’s family embraces this philosophy, too: his parents are relatively traditional in their views towards study, but don’t impose their beliefs on him and his younger brother, he says.
“They stress to us how important high academic performances are to our future. If we struggle in a particular area of [study], they make sure we spend lots of time working on that weak area ... However, they encourage and support whatever passion we pursue. They believe that the most important thing in life is to live happily and pursuing your interests helps achieve this goal.”