In Turning The Tide, a Making Caring Common Project by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the authors state in their summary, “today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good.” The report is in response to college applications that show a student’s focus through high school has evolved into checking off the necessary boxes in order to look good to admissions counselors. In response to this, there is a shift in the college admissions process that is attaching greater value to a student’s contributions to others and their community vs. individual achievements.

The idea of building social capital from the activities students participate in is consistent with the goals presented by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is also aligned with the ASCA‘s Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success. Social capital “is a form of economic and cultural capital in which social networks are central, transactions are marked by reciprocity, trust, and cooperation, and market agents produce goods and services not mainly for themselves, but for a common good.” With this approach, a student’s thinking is not on what they can get from the experience (e.g. I can log 2 hours of volunteer time, I got a leadership position, etc.), rather how their efforts can help others and what life skill have they gained or built upon.

At their core, participation in most extracurricular activities is predicated on individuals working together towards a common goal (e.g. members of the yearbook committee work to produce a school yearbook). There are also many solitary endeavors where the end product is shared with a larger community of like-minded people (painting and exhibiting your work). Through the effort put forth in these activities, mindset and behavior standards are built and strengthened, like self-confidence, responsibility, and self-discipline. These standards serve as the foundation for academic success as well as college readiness.

However, the concern the Harvard Graduate School of Education identifies is the narrative parents put forth that associates extracurricular activities with the goal of getting into a good college. A parent’s continual emphasis on the destination rather than the journey disengages the student from developing their own understanding of why they participate in specific activities and learning valuable lessons. With a focus on always doing the right thing for the college application, helping select and then constantly monitoring the activities, parents essentially remove their student from decision making. Students do not develop the social and emotional tools necessary to manage their lives outside of the house they lived in during high school. The consequences of such a narrative is one factor being associated with the increased dropout rate of first year college students, the decrease in graduation completion rates and the increase in the length of time to degree.

There is certainly a need for guidance to keep a student from moving off in the wrong direction, but parents may need to be critical of their level of intervention, sheltering from disappointment and overall personal management that takes place as our students move through middle school into high school. As they review their essays, personal statements and the words of those recommending our students, college admissions counselors have always been able to identify those students who simply check the boxes from those that have truly gone down the path of discovery and growth. They will now be able to apply greater weight in the admissions process to those students who truly demonstrate how they got to this point in time and how their experiences will keep them moving forward.