Report Calls for Shift in How Colleges Evaluate Applicants

Sage Hill President Gordon McNeill discusses a report about the college admission process and how it reinforces the core values taught at Sage Hill.

Few among us would deny that the college admission process has grown excessively stressful and competitive. Now there’s a new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, titled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good, which calls for a major shift in how colleges evaluate applicants. Endorsed by more than 80 college administrators and others vested in the process, the report recommends reducing the emphasis on grades, test scores, and long lists of activities and increasing the emphasis on values and character traits like kindness and compassion. What struck me most about the report’s recommendations is that they align so closely with the messages we give our students every day on the Sage Hill campus: Be a good citizen. Lead a balanced life. Be authentic.

One of the problems with college admissions today is that high school students believe they need to spend their four years of high school packaging themselves. So many of their decisions are colored by how they will look for college. How often do you hear students signing up for an activity because it will “look good” on their applications rather than because it’s something they genuinely want to do? Or signing up for an extra AP class, not because they are interested in the subject, but because they think colleges want to see that class on their transcripts? Turning the Tide aims to put an end to that, and to reduce the stress on our students by challenging colleges to take a deeper look at their core values and really see who they are.

I spoke with our Director of College Counseling, Frank Smith, to hear his reaction to the report. Mr. Smith is hopeful that the most selective colleges will take a chance on adopting these changes, creating a new admissions atmosphere that will trickle down to other colleges and, ultimately, to students. But there’s always a risk when colleges say they are going to evaluate students differently—that students will just alter the way they package themselves. That’s clearly not the intention of the Harvard group that produced the report—a group called “Making Caring Common.” Their goal isn’t to get students to pad their resumes with more hollow community service; they specifically note that they are promoting meaningful, sustained service, working side-by-side with the people they are helping. The hope is that by encouraging students to find ways to impact their own communities, sparks will be ignited, compassion will be fueled, and students will be inspired to work toward the common good.

Interestingly, that’s exactly the goal of Sage Hill’s service learning program. Embedded into our curriculum, our program exposes students to the mutual personal enrichment of service to others and broadens their minds to the impact they can have beyond their own lives. Ideally, we’d love to see each student adopt a mindset of service that goes beyond the one designated service learning day each month and becomes ingrained in who they are. We also give students opportunities to discover new interests through the Sage Hill Internship Program (SHIP). We want to see students building on those interests and going a step further. That’s not something you can package; that’s something very real.

Furthermore, the report urges colleges to acknowledge the different ways students contribute to their families or communities. Responsibilities like caring for a sibling or holding an after-school job may preclude some students from participating in other activities. In an effort to promote access, the report calls for “redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.”

One of my favorite aspects of the report is its recommendations for “reducing undue achievement pressure.” In particular, the report calls upon colleges to send a message that loading up on AP classes or activities will not enhance a student’s chance of admission. Instead of signing up for five APs, six clubs, a play and a sport, students should engage deeply in a few areas of genuine interest. We already encourage that by limiting our students to no more than three AP or accelerated courses, unless they receive special permission. This ensures that students who choose a challenging course load have an established level of achievement and genuine intellectual curiosity, while also being able to maintain balance in their lives. Balance is one of Sage Hill’s core values, because we believe the high school years should be characterized by enriching and fun activities—including down time—and not by undue stress.

So, should Turning the Tide change the way our students approach high school? Only if the new approach involves less stress and deeper involvement in meaningful activities. I see the report as reinforcing our core values at Sage Hill, and I am encouraged that those values are shared by some of the most well-respected educators in the nation. My own hope is that, as colleges begin to implement the report’s recommendations, our students will feel a newfound sense of freedom to follow their authentic interests and be themselves. Just as we’ve always wanted.
    • <strong>Welcome to my blog!</strong> It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day business of the school -- this blog is an opportunity to share my perspective on Sage Hill School.  I invite you share your thoughts and suggestions for future posts. Feel free to email me at <a href=""></a>.
      Mr. McNeill's Blog

      Welcome to my blog! It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day business of the school -- this blog is an opportunity to share my perspective on Sage Hill School. I invite you share your thoughts and suggestions for future posts. Feel free to email me at

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