On Parenting: Harvard's Richard Weissbourd on college admissions and raising kind kids

Good afternoon everyone, and thanks for joining us. We have here Richard Weissbourd, the co-founder of the Making Caring Common project at Harvard, which aims to help educators, parents and communities raise kids to be caring, responsible and committed to justice. Weissbourd is behind what I believe has become our most popular piece ever at On Parenting ever: 5 Ways to Raise Kind Kids.

He's here today to talk about the group's most recent study "Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions," kids and kindness and more.

In addition, MCC recently published tips for parents on how they can help and how they can help to create a sane application process for their kids.

A bunch of questions about it all await, not to mention some skepticism. Let's have a good discussion.

Great to be here and looking forward to your questions!

Rick, Amy here. This comment came across our On Parenting Facebook page when I noted that you'd be here to chat. This writer's sentiment was far from the first I've seen or heard like this.  Care to comment? I think this is exactly what you're studying/talking about:

"As a secondary school counselor for the last 16 years, I am very concerned that we are creating a generation of kids who are "doing school" rather than learning for the sake of learning. We are forgetting about passion and kindness and the qualities that are not measured on a standardized test or transcript. There are a LOT of great students out there (especially first generation) who would be excellent additions to any university, but the bar has been raised so high that they can't make the cut."

Great comment and we strongly share this concern.  We're focused in the report on both ethical engagement and intellectual engagement-- spirited, passionate learning.  The colleges endorsing are trying to motivate these kinds of engagement and they're expressing a commitment to look at quality of engagement over quantity of extracurriculars, APs, etc.

How do you stop the practice of kids participating in volunteer work to pad their admissions resume? How can you get the kids to actually do the volunteer work and ensure that they get something meaningful out of it?

A couple of thoughts about this: First, I think you’re right that some students and parents will try to “game” whatever system is in place. Research suggests that even service that is required can benefit these students if it’s high-quality, and we make recommendations for high-quality service in the report.  

Your question also brings up an important point about how colleges assess applicants’ service or ethical engagement. This is a big challenge for colleges—especially for large state universities that can receive 50,000+ applications. But we have also heard from many admissions deans that they’re often able to spot inauthentic applications.

Do you worry that putting such a focus on community service in your report will add a new stress to the college application process? Like parents and high schools will now feel the need to force their kids to take on hours of community service, in addition to their other academic and extracurricular activities, in order to get into a "good" college? Is it just a new pressure (granted, a noble one) to add to the pile?

I do worry about this, but the point of the report is to encourage students to lead more balanced lives, i.e., to avoid overloading on APs, extracurriculars, etc.   I think if students avoid that, they can also undertake community engagement.  Community engagement is also defined broadly to include a wide range of activities, including participating in sports teams (although students would need in their applications to describe how that participation developed their awareness of and commitment to the group)

This is the most recent piece we ran that relates to MCC's study.

How can I help slow down this race of families with teens who are hyperfocused on their college resume? I am a psychotherapist seeing a lot of teen clients who are overscheduled, exhausted and anxious. Parents and teens look at me like I have 3 heads when we talk about lifestyle changes, such as dropping an activity.

Great question.  I hope the report will help-- the colleges that endorsed really aren't impressed with long lists of activities.I also think it's super important to get students and parents focused on a wide range of colleges (I know this can be hard to do).  This country has hundreds of great colleges and students don't need super impressive accomplishments and long brag sheets to get into a good college that is a good fit for them.

Why do you encourage parents to raise kind kids, yet suggest that kids who want to be teachers, firefighters or carpenters (at least two of the three of which are professions that need caring individuals) should not attend and elite school? It seems contradictory.

I'm not saying teachers, firefighters, etc shouldn't attend elite schools.  I am saying that students at elite schools can feel a lot of pressure, unfortunately, to go into very high status professions when they may prefer to be teachers, firefighters, etc.

I'm sorry, but community service and having strong ethics and personal values has largely been a part of the college admissions process throughout history. Should we place a greater focus on it? Absolutely, but only after we have selected the most academically qualified students. I don't understand this shift that seems to be taking place where we say it is enough to "be a good person" to get into college. Colleges are by definition academic environments. In order to be admitted to a college or university, the student should be academically competitive first and foremost. The things that are listed in the introduction as being important, always have been in my mind - we are just moving to discourage kids from taking the hardest classes and exploring a wide variety of interests. Why discourage kids from taking more APs or doing many activities? Why are we making "achievement" a dirty word?

You’re certainly right that service and ethical engagement are an important part of the admissions process for many colleges, but we’ve also heard from admissions deans that even though they have tried to convey that message, students and many parents aren’t receiving it. 

Academic achievement and ethical engagement aren't mutually exclusive—we all know young people who have both qualities. Our effort simply encourages colleges to emphasize the importance of ethical engagement in the admissions process to send a more powerful signal to young people.

I recently heard about your Making Caring Common project and felt an indescribable sense of relief that such an effort was underway to alleviate the intense pressure on kids to "get into a good school". However, in the article titled "Want your child to get into college and have a good life? Here’s how.", where this live chat was mentioned, Harvard's own dean of admissions as well as a Yale admissions officer stated their applications will for the most part remain unchanged - seemingly suggesting that the "Making Caring Common" effort is really more just talk than actuality. That was very discouraging to read I must admit. Is it really just another good idea that colleges are saying they will implement but in the end really won't? How unfortunate that would be!

Great question.  Harvard and Yale will make some changes.  But we now have almost 100 colleges endorsing the report and we're hoping that a wide range of colleges make changes. That will send an important collective message.  I do think we'll see a wide range of colleges placing a greater emphasis on  ethical engagement.   In the end, though, college admissions can only do so much.  Parents, high schools, sports programs, etc also have a key role in promoting ethical and intellectual engagement, increasing equity and access for disadvantaged students and reducing excessive achievement pressure in affluent communities.

I live in Northern Virginia, and it doesn't matter. Parents and teens will game anything to get their kids in anywhere. It's a noble idea, do something meaningful for your community, but really -- is Harvard really going to turn down significant numbers of applicants who did 2 or 3 varsity sports, served in student government, put in lots of hours at the food bank, all while achieving 5's on 10 AP exams, while getting better than straight A's? Oh - except now, applicants can have 1 varsity sport, maybe student government or not, still take all those AP exams, but also sponsor some clean water initiatives in an African country. I'm sure some enterprising companies or consultants will help facilitate the latter. The rules of admission have changed, but I don't think you'll get any more resilient or mentally healthier students, assuming that is what Harvard wants. Your real problem is that college admission standards are creating sheep. Sheep who will do anything to put on the "brag sheet" whatever an admissions officer is looking for. Sheep do not make very interesting people, just people good at following directions and confused when things go awry. I'm so glad I went to an Ivy. I can tell my teens to stay away. It's not like it was back then, full of normal people

Almost 100 colleges have endorsed the report so the focus should certainly not just be on Harvard.  We'd love to see changes in the big state colleges that accept far greater numbers of applicants.   We are trying to help students lead saner, healthier lives by discouraging them from overloading on activities and APs and to instead engage in fewer activities that they're really interested in and energized by.

I would be shocked, utterly shocked, if any college accepted students with fewer APs and extracurriculars. Actually, they will accept those with less if they come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Upper middle class kids will still be expect to do utterly everything, plus meaningful volunteer work now. I just can't imagine an admissions officer asking for anything less. And NO - my teens will not be applying to any university with an acceptance rate of less than 10% or even 15%. NOT WORTH IT, and no school is that great. (spoken by a grad of a name school)

The evidence indicates that students can get a strong education that leads to good, satisfying jobs if they attend a wide range of colleges, many of which are not highly selective.   And most college admissions officers are far more interested in students that are meaningfully engaged academically and ethically than they are in students who just seem to be going through the motions and racking up APs and activities.

What do you think it will take to get the report's recommendations implemented at a significant number of institutions?

Great question--and very timely in the early stages of our campaign!

As I mentioned, about 100 colleges and universities have endorsed the report. A core part of our campaign is working with these colleges to implement changes in their admissions processes. For some institutions, this means changing admissions materials or application essay questions to focus on ethical and community engagement. For others--such as the University of Washington--it means developing new recruitment and scholarship programs to find and provide financial support to ethically engaged students in the community. 

We're also working on a number of other strategies, including possible updates to the Common Application, developing more effective tools for colleges and universities to use in assessing applicants' ethical and community engagement, the idea of a gap or "bridge" year between high school and college, etc. We are in the early stages of planning, but we're happy to share updates with anyone who wants to contact us at collegeadmissions@makingcaringcommon.org.

school. Lots of middle aged parents with kids aged from late elementary to high school. The most common theme of the college discussion was how to get the kids through without having to take on student loans. No one was saying "our school or bust" or even that they preferred their kids to go to our school or something similar. Just how to pay for it without burdening the kids or the parents.

So glad you raised this point.  The fact that so many people can't afford college is a huge, very troubling issue.

We're brainstorming strategies that might help.  Lots of good folks around the country are working on this. We have to find ways to make college more affordable.

what advice would you give to homeschooled teens to best prepare for the college application process?


I do think that it’s critical for all students to be authentically themselves in the admissions process. I would offer this advice: Don’t try to do and say what you think admissions officers want to see and hear. Your application should be informed by knowledge about the college you're applying to, but stay true to yourself.  Pursue what is interesting and meaningful to you and it will come across loud and clear in your application.

Parents in our community often ask how to navigate the pressure girls face to be nice, while also standing up for themselves. How does the concept of kindness fit into that part of development?

Great that parents in your community are working on this.  I think some girls (and some boys) are too organized around others. The challenge is for them both to be kind and to stand up for themselves and assert their own needs.  Kids often need help in knowing when to stand up for themselves and encouragement to do so...

I think that if your student is truly authentic regarding caring, it will show in the application and is an asset. I reviewed my cousin's college applications last year, and his big essay was about how he helped one of his parents through cancer, which led him to do a lot of volunteer work with the center that was instrumental in the care. He was worried about his GPA and dropping of AP classes, but my thought was that it was his choice in order to help out and to reflect that in the essay. He got accepted everywhere except for 1 or 2 Ivies. No big deal, and he loves where he's at now. If it's authentic, the caring and enthusiasm in your application will be apparent.

Yes--important point.  I think admissions officers are really looking for authenticity and that most of them can spot gaming and inauthentic essays.

How do you help a child who is too nice? For example, my daughter lets herself get pushed around a bit by her friends because she does not want to hurt their feelings. Also, we talk about stranger danger and getting away from adults who make you uncomfortable. She worries about hurting their feelings. How do you explain the line between kind and self-defeating?

Great question.  It might help to talk to her about the importance of being nice to herself.  You might also tell her that standing up to other people is not only good for her but good for them in the end.  It's wonderful that your daughter cares so much about other people.

to engage in a meaningful gap year. A poor kid taking a gap year is going to end up in a job that only requires a high school diploma. One more advantage to the already advantaged.

Yes-- a very real concern.  If colleges promote gap years, they should also find ways to make those years "bridge to college" years for low-income students.   Otherwise, low-income students will be disadvantaged.

"The evidence indicates that students can get a strong education that leads to good, satisfying jobs if they attend a wide range of colleges, many of which are not highly selective." YES!! I have been telling my teens this for years!! And TG, neither of them wants to go to an elite school. I've successfully raised free-thinkers. So, does this mean the top 100 schools are not getting the interesting and resilient teens who specialize in a few things and take time for friendships and managing their own work (without Mom and Dad telling them what to do?)?

Good for you, and hooray for your kids! Our effort is all about creating a more sane admissions process and it sounds like your kids are on the right track. 

Why the shift from academic achievement. I get that we want well rounded kids, but as many are point out here, there are always ways to game the system. "We are trying to help students lead saner, healthier lives by discouraging them from overloading on activities and APs and to instead engage in fewer activities that they're really interested in and energized by." One aspect of this that always seems to be missing from the conversation is the discussion of kids who genuinely are energized by many activities and APs. They like to be challenged and busy, and are deeply engaged, while doing many things. The idea that a student can't REALLY be energized by many AP classes and multiple activities is harmful, in my opinion. The discussions around college admissions and "over-loading" just seems to ultimately punish and hurt these kids. We have such a focus on telling kids to narrow their interests and choose 1 or 2 things to do. The great minds and inventors in our nations history were very busy in a wide range of activities (ben franklin comes to mind). Why try to hinder kids by encouraging them to do less and learn less? We need to focus on pushing each kid to do what their best is. For some that is fewer AP classes, but for another it may very well be what is generally called "overloading." -An educator who was once that "over-loaded" high schooler (who also, incidentally, did a LOT of community service work and community activism)

Important point.  Endorsers, though, don't want to penalize any child who takes multiple APs.  Endorsers are simply saying you don't have to take several APs to get into a good college.  The biggest AP issue is that many kids don't have access to APs at all.

Thanks again for reading along and asking good questions everyone. And thank you to Richard Weissbourd for taking the time to discuss this interesting take on kids, college, life. Have a great day, all.

In This Chat
Richard Weissbourd
Richard Weissbourd is a senior lecturer at Harvard University. He is a nationally recognized expert on moral and social development.
Amy Joyce
Amy Joyce has been at The Post, well, for a long time. Her first foray in to online chats were related to work. Now she's happy to chat about fun (but would like to believe the two can be one). She has been a Business reporter, editor for Weekend and the Going Out guide, and is now editing and writing for OnParenting. When not at work, she can be seen unsuccessfully dodging wiffle balls in her front yard.
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