Ending Extracurricular Privilege

One man’s mission to make college admissions sane (and fair) again

Monkey Business Images / karelnoppe / Aleksandar Kamasi / Viorel Sima / My Life Graphic / 501room / g-stockstudio / marino bocelli / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

One day in the summer of 2015, I sat in a small conference room in Tribeca, watching the reality show Dance Moms with Richard Weissbourd, a renowned Harvard psychologist. Weissbourd and I picked the show on the recommendation of a friend of his who works in children’s television and said it was popular with the youth.

It was an episode called “Cheerleader Blues,” in which a group of preteen dancers from Pittsburgh prepares for a competition under the watchful gaze of their mothers and the acerbic tutelage of their instructor, Abby Lee Miller. At the start of the episode, Miller ranks the girls based on their talent— pleasing no one, of course, except for the mother of the pyramidion. The others exclaim, wide-eyed, things like, “I am shocked where Brooke was placed!" and "You mean to tell me Chloe is above her?!”

When one mom, herself a former student of Miller’s, confronts the dance teacher about the rankings, Miller accuses the mom of giving up on her own dance career too easily: “Kelly, you settled! Think of what you could have been!”

After a few minutes, Weissbourd had enough. “How depressing,” he said in his deep, kindly voice. “Even the people who view this smugly are often doing the same thing—they’re just not aware of it. When you ask kids what parents care about, they say achievement, not caring.”

To Weissbourd, shows like Dance Moms are a symptom of a broader societal malaise. It’s an example of how ego-driven society, and by extension, teenagers, have become, thanks in part to the pressures placed on them by parents and colleges. The Harvard initiative Weissbourd co-directs—called “Making Caring Common”—is aimed at changing media messages and school policies in order to promote concern for others among youth. Essentially, he hopes to make kids into better people and America a little less like Dance Moms.

Weissbourd was shocked when, a few years ago, his research team asked 10,000 middle- and high-school students to rank what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, feeling good, or caring for others. Almost 80 percent picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while just 20 percent chose caring. The majority of the teens thought their parents were more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. As one such budding Objectivist put it, “If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others.”

The students’ self-involvement spurred Weissbourd and his colleagues to try to tweak their perceived reward structure. For the past several years, he’s been pushing college deans to make changes to their admissions processes in order to de-emphasize laundry lists of achievements and activities. Instead, he wants to promote the idea that simply being a great person can help you get into a great school. And early signs suggest it’s working: Several schools, including top colleges like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale, have made changes to their applications to better accommodate students whose concern for the common good is their most outstanding quality. The changes may reflect on the admissions decisions these universities make as they process applications in coming months.

The college-application process, always a bit of a rat race, has in recent years become ever more tortuous and with an ever-dwindling piece of cheese at the end. High-school seniors and their families are seeing elite schools’ admission rates plummet, so they are applying to more and more colleges, spending hundreds on admissions fees, and piling on activities to get an edge. “When people are anxious, it’s easier to latch onto quantity rather than quality,” Weissbourd says.

Many high-schoolers do volunteer, but to Weissbourd, it seems the public service doesn’t always come with pure intentions. Many well-heeled students find themselves in a "community-service Olympics," as he calls it, jetting off to an exotic country to build houses for a week and signing up to be treasurer of five or six clubs when they return. “One of the things we're saying is that it doesn't advantage you to go to Belize,” he said. “It's just as good to work in a local soup kitchen.”

The goal of the college-admissions process is, in part, to draw a diverse applicant pool. But if that’s the case, Weissbourd and others take issue with the amount of emphasis on organized clubs, sports, far-flung charity trips, and other costly endeavors, and so little on the types of domestic labor and menial jobs that tend to dominate the summers and after-school hours of lower-income students. High-schoolers’ babysitting and fry-slinging might be crucial for their families, but it looks less impressive when weighed against richer rivals’ violin concertos and robotics camps. If Weissbourd has his way, the activities would get equal footing.

“The problem with [college applications] is usually they’re not explicit enough, so if you say ‘report on any responsibilities or activities you had outside of school,’ the kids who are taking care of a sick relative don’t know to report those things or are too humble to report them,” Weissbourd said. “Our goal is to encourage them to report those things and provide examples of what to report.”

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Weissbourd, who began most of our calls with a warm little chuckle, has some good-dad bona fides. His family is adorably close; in New York, he stayed in his son’s apartment, sparing Harvard a hotel bill.

Rick Weissbourd with his daughter, Sophie, at a park somewhere
Rick Weissbourd with his daughter, Sophie

And though he tends to avoid overblown pronouncements—his wife joked that she's going to put “it’s complicated” on his tombstone—he’s adamant about one thing: Parents have become obsessed with their kids’ self-fulfillment, at the expense of self-sacrifice. “We have elevated achievement and happiness as the chief goals of childhood and demoted caring for the collective,” Weissbourd told me. “The result is that the focus on achievement and happiness isn't making kids happy.”

Unlike kids these days, Weissbourd was seemingly programmed from birth to care about the suffering of others. His father, the scientist Bernard Weissbourd, worked on the Manhattan Project, and then, horrified by the bomb’s potential misuse, joined a scientific consortium that called for restrictions on nuclear weapons. Over dinner, he would spring ethical dilemmas on his kids, asking them things like, “If your wife is dying of cancer and there’s only one drug that can save her, but you can’t afford it, should you steal the drug?” Growing up, Weissbourd would say he wanted to be “a general in the war on poverty.”

In a way, he became one. After working for a few years as a therapist for poor families, Weissbourd served as an advisor on children and families to both Al Gore, when he was vice president, and Tom Menino, when he was the mayor of Boston.

Later, he changed his focus to kids who get too much attention, rather than not enough. As a young dad, he would cringe when he overheard other parents apologize for being late by saying something like, “my daughter didn’t like her clothes.”

He even noticed the doting tendency creeping into his own parenting. “There was just so much attention to how my kids were feeling moment to moment,” he said. “I worried they were going to become selfish.”

In his op-eds and books, Weissbourd exhorts parents to only thank children for “uncommon” acts of kindness, not just for tidying their rooms. Middle-schoolers should be coaxed into metaphorical “caring and courage zones,” where they befriend bullied classmates regardless of the social cost. At parent-teacher conferences, parents should ask things like, “Is my child mindful of every child in the class?” rather than (or in addition to) “How is he progressing in Mandarin?”

It’s not that parents today don’t focus on character, he says. It’s that when they do, they tend to dwell on “grit,” which, again, emphasizes performance over morality. And he doesn’t just mean kids need to be “nicer.” Plenty of kids are nice, he said, but “they don't have a strong sense of obligation to the common good or our collective future. A lot of Harvard students are ‘nice,’ but they don’t always act morally. They leave their crap all over the dining room and think someone else will pick it up.”

Lest his complaints sound like just another boomer-on-millennial flamewar, there’s evidence backing them. One University of Michigan study found college students in 2010 were about 40 percent less empathetic than their counterparts a generation ago, with the biggest drop occurring after the year 2000. (American adults have, as a whole, also become less trusting since 1972.) The percentage of college freshmen who say it’s important to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life” dropped by 15 percentage points since 1980, to fewer than half of freshmen in 2010.

As part of his campaign against self-centeredness, Weissbourd is consulting with TV networks in an effort to mold their kids’ programming to include more themes about kindness and caring. I asked if there was any kind of show he wouldn’t consult on—Dance Moms, perhaps?

The Bachelor—I would be uncomfortable with that,” he said. Too much competition and performance for a show ostensibly about love. He describes another survey in which he asked teens what they considered to be most important in a romantic partner. “You hope that kind comes in first, but it doesn't. Funny comes in first,” he said. “Attractiveness comes in higher [than kind] for many people. I worry about these shows reinforcing that. You've got to marry someone who's kind!” A show he does recommend? Friday Night Lights.

* * *

Two years ago, Weissbourd met with college-admissions deans, high-school guidance counselors, and education experts to discuss how colleges could better promote ethical character and socioeconomic fairness through their admissions processes. How, Weissbourd asked, could colleges attract good kids, rather than just smart or rich ones?

The resulting report, called “Turning the Tide,” was released in January and written by Weissbourd and Lloyd Thacker, director of the nonprofit Education Conservancy. The report aims to revamp how students spend their time in school by asking colleges to de-prioritize the “long brag sheets” kids are typically encouraged to accumulate, Weissbourd said. The report warns against “overcoaching” and piling on too many Advanced Placement classes. Students “should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities,” it says. The report recommends that some colleges consider making standardized tests optional. All schools should emphasize that it matters less whether community service was performed in a distant location than whether students “immersed themselves in an experience.”

It also gives a major boost to low-income kids struggling to fulfill family obligations: “The admissions process should clearly send the message to students, parents, and other caregivers that not only community engagement and service, but also students’ family contributions, such as caring for younger siblings, taking on major household duties, or working outside the home to provide needed income, are highly valued in the admissions process.”

The end goal, Weissbourd said, is for colleges to send recruitment letters not just to quarterbacks and quiz-bowl champions, but to community-minded B+ students who work 20 hours a week.

To organizations involved with low-income kids, it seemed like exactly the kind of thing that would address the babysitting-versus-Belize dilemma. “The most important piece that I see in that is acknowledging all of the family and community responsibilities that the students who are working with us have,” Mike Wasserman, the Massachusetts executive director of Bottom Line, an organization that mentors at-risk students, told the Boston Globe in the wake of the report’s release.

More than 120 colleges and universities endorsed the report, and in response, about a dozen made changes to their admissions processes that will affect students applying this year.

Stuart Schmill, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that while it won’t be any easier to get into MIT, the school has changed its language to suggest students should take rigorous classes in the subjects that most interest them—not necessarily in all areas. The school also added a mandatory essay question asking applicants to “Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc.” It reduced the number of slots for extracurriculars to four, down from 10 a few years ago, and advised applicants not to list activities from ninth grade, which should be a “a time for exploration,” Schmill said. “We’re trying to allow students to be themselves, to explore their interests more deeply, and not have to contort that or change that to fit the college-admissions process.”

Yale, meanwhile, accepts the application designed by the Coalition for Access & Affordability, which includes slots for only two extracurricular activities. It, too, has replaced a more general essay question with three more specific questions, including one designed to learn more about the “community” the student belongs to.

And Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, began making changes even before the Turning the Tide report debuted, but it’s since done even more, launching a scholarship for students who exhibit kindness and empathy and recruiting students through community-based organizations. Since it stopped requiring standardized-test scores last year, it drew the highest number of first-generation students in its history. “We give students a lot of credit who work after school,” said Angel Perez, Trinity’s vice president for enrollment. “They work very hard, and they go home and start homework at 8 or 9 at night.”

Weissbourd said he’s “very positive” about the changes so far, especially given how long it can take for the gears of university bureaucracy to grind. Still, some schools haven’t made any changes, he points out, and “some deans say that they’re already doing all the things that we recommend in the report, but we know they’re not.”

Colleges often place the blame on parents and high schools for pressure-cooking students, so Weissbourd’s next report, due out in May, focuses on strategies for high-schoolers and colleges. High schools could, for example, cap the number of Advanced Placement courses kids take in order to craft curricula that are “meaningful and high-quality and doesn’t stress out [kids] too much,” he said.

Of course, college admissions can be somewhat of a prisoner’s dilemma. I could babysit my siblings and cross a couple AP classes off my schedule, but unless you do the same, yours is the application that will garner a second glance from Dartmouth. Or to borrow another TV analogy, some parents may be reluctant to turn their teen into the “heart” Planeteer—with unclear rewards.

Weissbourd has an answer, though, for parents who are still convinced a forced march is the only way to the top. He hates it when psychologists tell people to be moral as a way of boosting their own satisfaction. (“We should be moral to be moral,” he says.) But that logic makes sense, he admits: Being a good person does make life more blissful. “If we develop kids’ capacity to empathize, kids will be happier because they’ll have better relationships their whole life, and they'll be more effective at work, too,” he said as we polished off our lunches in New York. (We each paid separately, as is ethical.) “I want them to be caring because it's the right thing to do. And, it may make you happier.”