A client recently admitted to me that she cheats. Regularly. Copying a friend’s homework, plagiarizing a paragraph here or a sentence there, using a cell phone to stealthily Google an answer on a pop quiz… The whole shebang. Worse yet, she told me all of her classmates cheat too, and everyone knows it’s happening – including her teachers who simply turn a blind eye! Is she scared of being punished for her actions? Sure. But nothing, nothing, scares her more than getting bad grades and risking rejection from college.
“Because,” she told me, “college defines you. So getting rejected is like death. I’ve worked too hard for too long to put myself at risk. So I cheat. It’s the new Darwinism: survival of the cheaters.”
And there you have it. Many of our kids have come to understand that their entire identity hinges upon their GPA or college acceptance, and therefore see cheating as a necessary tool for securing a successful future. Or, at the very least, they’ve come to believe that an A+ (or any accomplishment for that matter) is worth the sacrifice of personal integrity.
We’ve got to get back to basics and teach our kids that character and values trump achievement.
The good news is that colleges are beginning to understand the need for a major reshaping of the admissions process in order to prioritize personal integrity, and level the playing field for students whose strengths lie outside of academics.
Harvard’s recent report Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions is the first major call to action, imploring college admissions to send the critical message that BOTH ethical and intellectual engagement are highly important.
The report offers specific recommendations for reshaping the admissions process in each of the following three areas:
1. Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.
“We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen – that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests – that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults. We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement. This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income.”
2. Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class.
“The admissions process should clearly send the message to students, parents and other caregivers that not only community engagement and service, but also students’ family contributions, such as caring for younger siblings, taking on major household duties or working outside the home to provide needed income, are highly valued in the admissions process. Far too often there is a perception that high-profile, brief forms of service tend to count in admissions, while these far more consistent, demanding, and deeper family contributions are overlooked. Students should have clear opportunities to report these family contributions on their applications.”
3. Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.
“Admissions offices should send a clear message that numerous extracurricular activities or long “brag sheets” do not increase students’ chances of admission. Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities and should discourage students from reporting activities that have not been meaningful to them. Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas. Admissions offices should work to relieve undue pressure associated with admission tests (SAT and ACT). Options for reducing this pressure include: making these tests optional, clearly describing to applicants how much these tests actually “count” and how they are considered in the admissions process, and discouraging students from taking an admissions test more than twice.”
These recommendations are truly exciting and I have high hopes that this report will initiate a long overdue admissions overhaul. But we all know that systemic change is often slow and incremental. To that end, here are some simple ideas about how to help your kids avoid the pitfalls of the “achievement identity crisis” until the admissions process catches up with the times.
1. Theodore Roosevelt said it best: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We must help our kids to stay in their own lane, and go their own speed. Looking at their peers as a barometer for their own achievements is a surefire way fore teens to feel like they’re never doing enough.
2. Remind your kids that we are human beings not human doings. What does it mean to be a capable, compassionate, ethical individual? Help teens make choices about their schedules and activities that promote being the kind of person they want to be instead of just doing things to fill up their résumé.
3. Praise strengths and effort—and MEAN IT! The idea that achievement and success are paramount is constantly reinforced through cultural and societal messaging. It’s up to you, as their primary role model, to continually counterbalance that message by acknowledging and validating your teen’s strengths and efforts – even, and perhaps especially when they don’t succeed. But beware: if you’re not sincere, this strategy will backfire, so say what you mean and mean what you say.
I’m thrilled to see institutions like Harvard making a proactive effort to change the tide of our broken admissions process! Here’s to a generation of kids who believe they are worth more than the average of their test scores.