Gaining admission to thousands of colleges and universities just took several crucial steps in the right direction. A groundbreaking report, “Turning the Tide,” was released in January by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and suggests several critical changes to the admissions process that many educators hope will result in a more balanced, well-rounded student body, as well as more parity in the selection process. 

Traditionally, potential schools have reinforced to students the importance of high SAT and ACT scores, along with charitable work and coveted recommendations from important members of the community. Administrators are now learning that what these high SAT and ACT scores mostly reveal is family background and income levels — issues which have little to do with the quality of the students who present themselves as candidates. 

With such a narrow focus, the Harvard study concludes, schools may miss prime opportunities to extend admission to students with other valuable qualities and experiences, and overlook students whose grades may not meet the same threshold as some students, simply due to familial obligations, or a packed work and study schedule. 

The research advises that schools pay less attention to the amount of charitable work each student participates in and instead focus on the authenticity of the student’s commitment to individual causes and their civic-responsibility. This can be accomplished through a more thoughtful review of student essays and personal recommendations and letters of reference. 

Gone too, are the days when schools were awed by student resumes consisting of an overwhelming amount of Advanced Placement (AP) classes and constant activity. Many high schools in lower income areas do not offer the same amount of AP classes, nor at the same level, and the Harvard Study suggests that this may unfairly eliminate viable candidates for admission. 

Frank Bruni, author of “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” tells CBS TV’s “This Morning” that “You have schools saying they’re not going to be as impressed by a huge load of AP courses. … What they’re trying to do is get kids away from a sort of incredibly dutiful script following during high school and encourage more genuine passions in them and figure out a way to judge them by the way they commit to those passions.”

The Harvard Study goes on to conclude that a well-tested student is not one who is necessarily well prepared. Major universities across the country have seen a significant spike in admittance to mental health centers on and off campus as many students struggle with the transition to life away from home and the pressure to maintain their GPA. Mental-health professionals have discovered a definitive correlation between the pressures of academic achievement and mental health. The Harvard study addresses the role universities play in exacerbating or compounding the stress in what is already a stressful time for students, and outlined specific recommendations to the admissions process itself to lesson their anxiety. Somewhere along the line, schools and parents have sent a message to students that if they’re unsuccessful in meeting a rigid set of educational metrics and milestones, they’ve failed, and many feel overwhelming concern that their failure will potentially follow them through adulthood. 

The Harvard study seeks to reverse this presumption. While hardly a mandate for the college admissions process, it has been lauded and commended by so many administrators from top universities that it can now be considered a blueprint for institutes of higher-learning when it comes to accepting and turning-out a more qualified, less fretful graduate into the workforce. In adopting this forward-thinking approach, many universities across the country have already begun to make SAT and ACT scores optional. As per the recommendations from the report, admission counselors are also casting a more critical eye on charitable work and personal recommendations from high-powered mentors and teachers alike. Rather than immediate, drastic changes to admissions, look for these changes to materialize over the next five years or so as schools across the country begin to understand the benefits of a more contemporary approach to admissions.

The sweeping new changes to the SAT tests implemented in March are yet another welcome modification to the admissions process. In addition to returning to a top score of 1,600, rather than the ill-advised and unpopular 2,400, students will no longer be penalized for incorrect answers, and the number of possible answers to multiple-choice questions has changed from five to four, thus affording test-takers better odds of a correct response. Additionally, students will be allotted more time to take the test, which now contains 16 fewer questions than previous versions. These are just a few of the important changes to the SAT system, so be sure to check collegeboard.org for more info. 

Financial aid will continue to be a lifeline to higher learning, but increased competition may make getting in to your favorite spot trickier than you’d hoped. Take advantage of the many websites geared toward helping students get their share of the financial aid pie, most notably among them studentaid.ed.gov, and above all, file all necessary aid forms in a timely manner. Many scholarships and grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Sites such as Cappex (cappex.com), formerly meritaid.com, continue to be excellent resources for finding a multitude of available scholarships. But be advised that while competition for these scholarships has increased, their availability, particularly those that are merit-based, has seen a significant decrease. 

Tuition has also seen a sharp increase, and experts predict the cost will only climb higher. Currently, the average yearly cost of a four-year in-state public college is $9,410, and $23,890 for out-of-state public colleges, while private colleges start at around $32,410 per year.

As of now, schools typically require the following coursework for entrance into most four-year colleges and universities: four years of English, three years of math (specifically geometry and algebra I and II), three years of a foreign language (unless fluency is verified), three years of science (including at least one laboratory science course) and some history and social sciences. 

To be sure, this is merely a guideline, since many prestigious colleges and universities prefer to see students take four years of math. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC, nacacnet.org), “Students who take math in each year of high school are far more successful in college than students taking only three years.” NACAC goes on to caution students to “never ‘skip’ a year of math in high school because you will lose your momentum. If you do not take math in your senior year, you will find that the math classes required in college will be very difficult!”

Many universities have become much more welcoming to students with alternative-education backgrounds, with some college applications already providing a box for home-schooled students to check. 

Experts at petersons.com advise home-schooled and schooled-online students to include a portfolio of special projects and writing samples from English and history curriculums along with their completed application to distinguish themselves from other students — those schooled both traditionally and non-traditionally. 

With all the changes on the horizon, it’s important for parents and students alike to investigate all the many new and exciting options available, as well as those changes not necessarily in their favor. 

With a little research and persistence, most students are sure to discover that finding the right college is like finding a great pair of jeans — there’s a perfect fit for every type.