The Ideal High School Graduate

A panel at the College Board’s annual conference in New York was titled, “The Ideal High School Graduate”. Deans from several well-known schools such as Harvard, Yale, Brandeis, and the U. of Rochester came together to discuss what they were looking for in an ideal admissions candidate. It’s worth reposting in full.

According to William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, the school is looking for people who make the world a better place, and don’t have a whole lot of attitude about it.

“I’m not sure Harvard has figured out what the ideal student is,” he said, clearly disappointing some cramped audience members. “But public service is a baseline. We’re trying to find people who make others around them better.”

Mr. Fitzsimmons called successful applicants to Harvard “good all-arounders — academically, extracurricularly and personally,” and he stressed the importance of demonstrating humanity and three-dimensionality in one’s college application. “I want to know, what is it this person does beside chew gum and produce good grades or scores?”

He warned against the superficiality of charismatic dispositions. “Charisma isn’t everything,” he said. “It actually makes a difference to have substance. And those quiet people can be incredibly easy to miss in college admissions, but they can be brilliant and wear incredibly well over the long haul.”

Marcia Landesman, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Yale, trumpeted the importance of modesty and resourcefulness, and emphasized the importance of recommendations.

Susan Warner, a private college adviser, found the comments reassuring. “I expected to be skeptical,” she said, having scoffed at the title of the panel. But she welcomed what she said sounded like a more holistic approach. “Maybe we learned from Madoff we need to raise humans who are working for the greater good,” she said, referring to Bernard Madoff, the Ponzi schemer.

The process of capturing complex and fascinating high schoolers in a few pages is fraught (and frightening). So I was comforted by comments made by Mark Spencer, dean of admissions at Brandeis University, who apparently agrees that there’s a certain futility in even having a conversation about “ideal candidates,” and says he looks for interesting and real students. “I don’t believe in an ideal high school graduate,” he said.

Nonetheless, he went on to praise “authentic” applicants above all others and shared an anecdote from an interview he conducted last week.

“A young woman told me her dad called her weird. She stated it. She accepted it. And she kind of liked it,” he said, laughing. In turn, Mr. Spencer really liked it. “She was real.”

In a day and age where competition is at an all-time high, it’s interesting to see this return to all around competence and character. I remember telling a former student of mine who was quite the overachiever, “Anyone can forget about the rest of life and simply get grades. It takes someone special to influence people and live life at the same time.” The world needs young men and women of character and ideal. People who have passion and the guts/discipline to make a difference even while young.

What are you doing to produce such men and women?

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