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Karin Klein: Today’s college admissions are out of control

Maya Wolf, 17, of Franklin, Mass., is congratulated after being presented with an acceptance letter in March by Wheaton College admissions dean Grant M. Gosselin. Karin Klein writes that families are distressed about the superheated competition to get in selective universities.
Maya Wolf, 17, of Franklin, Mass., is congratulated after being presented with an acceptance letter in March by Wheaton College admissions dean Grant M. Gosselin. Karin Klein writes that families are distressed about the superheated competition to get in selective universities. Associated Press

One applicant to a top college had a perfect 800 on all his SATs – not just the reading, math and then-compulsory writing sections, but on every subject test as well.

As remarkable as that was, even at this prestigious university, and despite the student’s sterling academic record, he killed his chances with an essay about – guess what – his perfect scores on all the tests. “Students just have to be better rounded than that,” a former member of the admissions committee told me.

Yes, it’s a boring essay. Poor kid probably didn’t have an overpriced college coach to steer him away from that topic, or just write the essay for him.

Look, I don’t know whether he deserved admission. But I’m certain it’s time for colleges to stop it with the whole well-rounded thing.

There’s tremendous dissatisfaction among families these days about the superheated competition for spots at top-ranked colleges and the craziness that accompanies it: the coaches and test prep, the schedules packed with Advanced Placement courses and extracurricular activities, preferably in leadership positions. That’s just the start. Then students need to pursue a quirky outside interest passionately and put in serious hours of community service.

Concerned that students were too stressed by their nonstop study and activities and too focused on achievement, a group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education produced a report that calls on colleges to de-emphasize AP courses and, to the extent practicable, SAT scores, and instead give students more credit for long-term, meaningful local volunteer work as well as for paid jobs and helping out at home. Dozens of college officials signed on in support.

Good intentions, bad misfire.

Colleges that follow the report would simply load another time-consuming activity on future applicants; moreover, the report narrows the scope of that activity to fit its own idea of valid community service.

What’s wrong with students trying out different types of service to learn about the world? Or trying to help the world by tinkering in a lab or writing fiction with a message?

Students will end up more stressed, not less. Few students will reduce their AP load or SAT prep; they know that whatever colleges say, they’ll love seeing big achievements on top of hundreds of hours of “authentic” volunteer work. And if admissions officers think that students can’t fake helping out at home or caring deeply about the community, they’re deluding themselves.

When overcoming adversity was the flavor of the admissions month, teenagers were busy digging up something terrible about their lives that they could put out to total strangers. Let’s face it: Though many students dig deep to try to reveal something real about themselves, plenty of college application essays are some of the best fiction out there.

Back to our perfect scorer: Maybe he’s not a laugh a minute in the dining hall and maybe he’s woefully unaware of social ills. But maybe he’ll become the intense, hyperfocused researcher who discovers something entirely new about distant universes or creates a commercially viable solar car.

If colleges really want applicants to be more authentic, they need to stop harping on being well-rounded because rare is the high school student who authentically wants to get four hours of sleep a night or phony up another part of her résumé to look like she effortlessly completes college courses at night while foraging greens during the afternoon so her family can eat.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at ochikes@yahoo.com.

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