Several weeks ago the communications office at my school sent out a news story that caught my eye, especially when viewed through my ECA lens. The story was about one of our juniors having been selected as a “Richmond Forum Scholar.”
The Richmond Forum is a subscription speaker series, the largest of its kind in the United States, that brings speakers ranging from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to Jane Goodall and Steven Spielberg to Richmond. Each year the Richmond Forum selects five area high school juniors as “Richmond Forum Scholars” for what the Forum website describes as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” (a description that seems just a bit hyperbolic). The students selected are essentially interns whose responsibilities include staffing VIP receptions, escorting speakers, introducing speakers to student groups, and additional duties as required. I’m not sure how selective the program is--my students who have been selected have been great kids, but I’ve also had a couple of great candidates who didn’t get selected.
What got my attention was a sentence that listed one of the benefits of being a Richmond Forum Scholar as the opportunity to list it on college applications. That bothered me, so I walked over to the communications office to talk to the new staff member who had written the story. It turned out that phrasing had come directly from the Richmond Forum website.
It will not surprise those who know me or who read this blog on a regular basis that I am skeptical of the claim that being a Richmond Forum Scholar will provide the promised college admission benefits. It certainly isn’t a negative in any respect, but is it a plus factor, enhancing one’s chances of being admitted? Is this the kind of thing that impresses admissions officers?
I would assume that the students selected for the program have been chosen because they are already outstanding and involved in their schools and community. For none of them will being a Richmond Forum Scholar constitute their most important activity. Their selection probably doesn’t significantly enhance their extracurricular record or their college chances.
But even it was a student’s sole extracurricular commitment, how significant would it be? It’s a nice experience and an opportunity, although perhaps not once-in-a-lifetime, to meet famous people. But from what I know of the program, it is in no way compelling. It’s certainly not comparable to curing cancer or winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The greatest college admission benefit of being a Richmond Forum Scholar is not the title, but the fact that you have been selected from a pool of outstanding students from throughout the community.
This case begs the kind of larger questions this blog loves to pose. What is the value of extracurricular activities in the college admission process? Is quantity of activities important or quality of activities? Should activities be chosen because of the experience they provide or because they impress admission officers? And what does it take to impress admission officers?
Those questions are relevant because the Richmond Forum is far from the only organization promising, or overpromising, college admission benefits. College admissions advantage seems to be a core marketing strategy for any program aiming to make a living off the anxiety that students and parents experience from the college process.
A number of years ago a former parent and Lower School faculty member at my school started a business advising students on summer opportunities, and for several years my Head of School contracted her services. She was very knowledgeable and had done her research, but I didn’t buy the fundamental premise behind her business, that participating in summer programs would have college admissions benefits. I never found that to be the case.
There is as much mythology about the role of extracurricular interests as there is about other parts of the college admissions process. Several years ago one of my student applying to the Ivies listed 17 different significant activities. When I advised him to prioritize and cut the list, he said he couldn’t, that all were important. He actually added a couple more at the urging of his mother. He wanted to send a message about the breadth of his extracurricular interests, and he did, but it was not the message he thought. Because he cared about everything, he appeared to truly care about nothing.
Do some activities carry more value in the admissions process? A commonly-held belief is that colleges love community service. That’s true, but probably less true than the days when community service was relatively rare. Not all community service is equally impressive. Long-term service is preferable to short-tern service, and there is a clear difference between service that is voluntary, service that fulfills a graduation requirement, and service that is court-mandated.
The belief that activities should be chosen because of their college admission value is part of a larger phenomenon. Is preparing for college (and life) about accumulating experiences or about building a resume? About substance, or the illusion of substance?
Back in the spring, the “Turning the Tide” report produced by the Making Caring Common initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education argued that the college admission process could serve society by valuing students who want to serve the common good rather than enhance their resume. That’s a laudable goal. But it ignores the more important question, which is whether the current admissions process, especially at super-selective institutions, encourages and rewards students who are about building resumes. And, if so, what are the implications for those institutions?
Suppose that a certain activity or honor by itself had the ability to move a student’s application into the acceptance pile. Should we advise our students to pursue that activity? I’m torn, with cognitive and moral dissonance. As a college counselor, it’s my responsibility to provide my students with information about the realities of the college process, even if I find those realities repugnant. At the same time, as a human being, should I enable a process that is in conflict with my values?
Thankfully, that’s not a dilemma I face on a daily basis. After my visit to the communications office, the reference to the college admissions benefits of being chosen as a Richmond Forum Scholar was deleted from the news story.