Kindness, not grades and test scores, may become the new “it factor” for college admissions departments.
More admissions officers are including kindness, compassion and helping others in their assessment of college applicants.
“This is a real opportunity for us to think about how we can get along with people, particularly those who are different than us,” said Trisha Ross-Anderson, senior program manager at Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project.
Kindness has been pushed to the backburner in the admissions and education process, she said, but needs to come forward.
“Kindness helps build a better community on campus,” said Ann McDermott, director of admissions at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. As students understand and respect their peers more it improves the college experience for most students. And hopefully, that translates into a better society after the student graduates, she said.
As incivility increases on campus and on social media, kindness becomes more important, say educators. Colleges and universities realize they have neglected to include that message in the highly competitive world of higher education.
“Today, [civility] is so important because of what we see in the larger community,” said Paul T. White, assistant dean of admissions at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore.
During the required admissions interview for Johns Hopkins Medical School, interviewers note how an applicant treats staff and other applicants.They want to “see how they act with people who aren’t involved in the process,” White said.“If they are rude to someone, I want to know about it.”
He said he looks for things that demonstrate compassion, such as an applicant's service history and letters of recommendation.“I frankly look for others who are interested in serving others and not just checking off a list of ‘Oh, I need clinical experience,’” White said.
White pointed to events like those held in Charlottesville, Virginia, near the University of Virginia, as a larger reason for promoting kindness at the college level.A white supremacist rally ended in three deaths there in August.
The Center for the Study for Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, which tracks hate crimes, says incidents increased 20 percent in 2016 in cities with a population of 250,000 or more.
Kindness has not been obvious on the checklist of qualities most schools look for in an applicant.Many students think admissions officers want to see participation in many clubs and extracurricular activities, McDermott said.
Some high-school students find themselves at 4 a.m. swim practice, practicing long hours on the violin or flute after school to achieve first chair in the orchestra, and studying long into the night to keep top grades.
Get into a good school and a good life will follow, is the prevailing expectation, said Iris Godes, associate vice president of enrollment, and dean of admissions at Dean College in Massachusetts. She said many parents put unnecessary expectations on their children, as they feel their kids represent them.
McDermott said students show up to college already burned out because of the pressure they feel to succeed.
“It’s important to reduce the anxiety level that these kids have,” Godes said, “There’s been too much placed on status.It’s about being a good citizen. It’s about being a good person.”
All this activity to compete nationally -- and in the past decade, internationally -- for a spot at a coveted college can exhaust and discourage a student, while conditioning them to think that only kids gifted on many levels have a chance at success.Some students are willing to push the boundaries by padding their resumes or cutting corners on their alleged superlatives, which can lead to cheating, Ross-Anderson said.
More than 175 college admissions offices, including eight Ivy League universities, have joined an effort called "Turning the Tide". “High school students often perceive colleges as simply valuing their achievements, not their responsibility for others and their communities,” according to Turning the Tide’s executive summary.
Many participating schools have added essay questions to the application about kindness and reduced the number of places to list extracurricular activities, Ross-Anderson said.This will make students feel less pressure to participate in numerous extracurriculars.
Students should stop “overloading” on advanced placement (AP) and international baccalaureate (IB) courses that show they are beyond high school curriculum, according to Turning the Tide.They should focus on “sustained academic achievement in a limited number of areas,” the executive summary said.
“Kindness is very important professionally,” Ross-Anderson said, “Employers want people that can collaborate well with others."She admits kindness is hard to measure, “The assessment portion of this work is very challenging.”
“It’s much more an art form than a science,” Elgarico echoed.
At Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, one applicant stood out because of one of his recommendations - from the high-school custodian. The letter spoke to the boy’s kindness when nobody was looking, picking up trash, and how he took the time to learn all the members of the custodial staff’s names, according to the New York Times.
The admissions staff voted unanimously to accept him to Dartmouth.