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Academic app supplements college admissions information

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Monday, April 1, 2024   

By Olivia Sanchez for The Hechinger Report.
Broadcast version by Terri Dee for Indiana News Service reporting for The Hechinger Report-Public News Service Collaboration

People who read college applications are a lot like detectives. Without having been there for the event (the student's K-12 education and life), they must find clues in documents (high school transcripts and student essays) and eyewitness accounts (letters of recommendation) to solve the case (decide whether a student might be able to thrive at the college).

But even with the extensive applications that each student submits, the detectives (college application readers) must do a lot of reading between the lines, said Tim Brunold, dean of admission at the University of Southern California.

The clues they have on how students spend their time outside of school are typically limited to a list of sports teams they've captained, clubs they joined, volunteer work they've done and awards they've won. But the application readers often lack key information on other responsibilities or life circumstances students may have, such as caring for siblings or sick family members, working part-time jobs to help pay family bills, or living in a home without a stable internet connection.

And those missing clues often mean a student's application doesn't get a fair shake. If a student is getting good grades in spite of being responsible for siblings from after school until bedtime, that could mean the student is even more academically talented than a peer with no such burdens.

In order to fill this gap, and signal to prospective students that these responsibilities matter, a set of 12 colleges participated in an experiment in which they asked every applicant to go through a list of extenuating home life circumstances or responsibilities and check off which ones they spend four hours or more per week doing.

"We want these kids to essentially get credit for these things that are taking a lot of skills and a lot of time, in the same way that kids who are doing traditional, school-based extracurricular activities are getting credit," said Trisha Ross Anderson, the college admission director of the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, which helped develop the questions with Common App. (The idea was in development before the Supreme Court ruled that race could not be considered in admissions decisions.)

"We want to make it easier for students to report this information and talk about it. If students don't want to have to write their essay about this, for instance, they shouldn't have to."

In order to make it fast and simple for prospective students, and to prevent application readers from having to play detective as they try to figure out, "Is there something else going on with this kid?," they added this optional question to the Common App:

Sometimes academic records and extracurricular activities are impacted by family responsibilities or other circumstances. We would like to know about these responsibilities and circumstances. Your responses will not negatively impact your application. You may repeat some information you already provided in the Common App Activities section.

Please select which activities you spend 4 or more hours per week doing:

  • Assisting family or household members with situations such as doctors' appointments, bank visits, or visa interviews

  • Doing tasks for my family or household (cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.)

  • Experiencing homelessness or another unstable living situation

  • Interpreting or translating for family or household members

  • Living in an environment without reliable or usable internet

  • Living independently or living on my own (not including boarding school)

  • Managing family or household finances, budget, or paying bills

  • Providing transportation for family or household members

  • Taking care of sick, disabled and/or elderly members of my family or household

  • Taking care of younger family or household members

  • Taking care of my own child or children

  • Working at a paid job to contribute to my family or household's income

  • Yard work/farm work

  • Other (please describe)

  • None of these

Across the 12 colleges, 66 percent of the students who applied to these colleges using the Common App checked at least one box, according to Karen Lopez, who manages this project at Common App. A quarter of the prospective students checked four or more boxes.

In the fall of 2022, these 12 colleges included the question in the Common App: Amherst College, Caltech, Cornell University, Harvey Mudd College, St. Olaf College, Transylvania University, University of Arizona, University of Dubuque, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

In the fall of 2023, these 23 colleges added the question: Allegheny College, Amherst College, Bard College at Simon's Rock, Boston College, Caltech, College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, College of the Holy Cross, Cornell University, Earlham College, Elon University, George Washington University, Harvey Mudd, Haverford College, Immaculata University, Lafayette College, Maryland Institute College of Art, Nazareth University, Providence College, University of Pennsylvania, University of Richmond, University of Rochester, University of Southern California and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Ross Anderson said that the second-year data will begin being processed in the coming months. She said they also plan to look at how this question affected admissions and enrollments, but they won't be able to examine that until late summer. Lopez said these are among the factors that will help decide if this question should become a regular part of the Common App.

Brunold, from USC, said that the people who read college applications are trying to get a "360-degree view of this young person who's often baring their soul to you," without knowing them personally. Giving students the opportunity to share information about their lives in this way helps colleges make a more thorough assessment.

"For us, at a place that unfortunately doesn't have the capacity to admit anywhere near the number of students who want to come here, we take great care in this process," Brunold said.

Whitney Soule, vice provost and dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, said that asking this question and capturing a wider view of students' lives can help level the playing field for applicants of different backgrounds.

"What we are trying to do is understand how a student is moving throughout their lives, what their commitment of time is and their responsibility is, and their awareness of themselves relative to other people," Soule said. "Because that's going to be incredibly important in our environment when they arrive on our campus, and they're living and learning within the community of our school."

Olivia Sanchez wrote this article for The Hechinger Report.

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