UW Today

January 22, 2016

UW joins effort to rethink admissions criteria, developing new scholarship

News and Information

The University of Washington is among more than 80 universities that have signed on to a new report and initiative encouraging changes to the college admissions process to promote greater ethical and intellectual engagement on the part of prospective students and level the playing field for economically diverse high school students.

A sunny day at the University of Washington Seattle campus, on the second day of Fall quarter classes, September 26th 2013. Photo by Katherine B. Turner

Photo by Katherine B. Turner

The report, entitled “Turning the Tide,” presses college admissions officers to place higher value on the things prospective students do for the greater good overall in their communities, for their families or at their schools as opposed to focusing so heavily on their personal achievements.

“Too often, today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good,” the report begins, adding that the college admissions process has too often contributed to the problem.

Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment at the UW, said the UW’s holistic review process for admissions already incorporates many of the recommendations highlighted in the report, such as asking applicants to list a few activities that are important to them and explain why they are meaningful, rather than submitting an exhaustive list of activities in which they participate.

“We have seen that at least a portion of students in high school, and their families, are so oriented to admission to a selective college that their experience in high school is dictated by absolutely piling on with advanced-placement and international baccalaureate courses, maybe in some cases beyond the ability and the welfare of the student, in terms of sanity and health,” Ballinger said. “The same thing goes for activities, where students often pile on instead of benefiting from the transformative potential of deep engagement in something of true interest and importance to themselves. We think there’s evidence that all of this has become unhealthy for some students, families and schools.”

Ballinger mentioned in a Chronicle of Higher Education article a new scholarship in development at the UW that aims to recognize incoming students for engagement and leadership in their communities.

“We’re going to be looking for students who are really taking notable initiative in terms of service and orientation toward other people,” Ballinger said. “We’re identifying such students in our applicant pool and hope to start awarding these scholarships soon.”

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote this week that the report “could make a real difference not just because it has widespread backing but also because it nails the way in which society in general – and children in particular – are badly served by the status quo.”

“For perhaps the first time in history, a broad range of colleges have come together to send a powerful collective message that what’s important in admissions is not high numbers of impressive accomplishments or long ‘brag sheets,’” wrote Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer in education and the co-director of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education – which created the report – in a commentary for Education Week.

“We need to start signaling to students and families other kinds of values which are important at the UW,” Ballinger said. “We’re concerned that what people hear around the state is the UW is all about GPA, test scores and tough courses. Yes, we expect our applicants to be strong students, but we clearly value other things in our review process. And those things are buried underneath that frenzy of, ‘I’ve got to do more; I’ve got to take another AP or IB class; I’ve got to do more activities.’ What’s being buried beneath this anxious piling on is a very important characteristic we are both looking for and hoping to encourage among students – an orientation toward others. This scholarship is our initial step to both communicate and celebrate this important value at the University of Washington.”