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I was in New Hampshire at the kickoff for the FIRST Robotics competition – an international program for middle and high school students – a few weeks ago when a mentor of a team from California approached me with a look of dismay. He asked me how to go about getting FIRST recognized as an Advanced Placement class. He said that he has a hard time recruiting team members for the FIRST team because the students are concerned it will take too much time away from their AP courses.

"They feel they need to take more AP classes so they can get into the college of their choice."

That comment broke my heart but it also got me thinking. While college admissions officers, high school counselors, and parents will all advise students that quality is more important than quantity, what do the students see? They see other students who loaded up on AP classes and a million other activities get admitted to selective colleges. And there is the disconnect.

There is no doubt that the admissions process at a selective college can seem opaque and unpredictable. The reason is that there are many more excellent candidates than spaces at those colleges. And so there are many students who do all the right things and still don’t get into their top choices.

And while this is not unlike what they will experience in the job market, as students, this is likely the first time that they will face a situation where there aren’t clear ways to get their desired outcome. You can’t just do X and get Y.

It doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t do X, because the same things that make you a good candidate for a place like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be a great preparation for your career and life. Unfortunately, instead of simply doing X and accepting the uncertainty, many students wind up doing X plus X plus X in the hopes that that will improve their chances.

This is human nature, of course, but there are things we can all do to make the situation better. Those who guide students — parents and counselors — must help them understand the uncertainty, and support them in doing what is best for them. And colleges must communicate as clearly as they can how their processes work and ensure that their actions are consistent with their words and encourage good educational behavior.

Indeed, there is no doubt that the college’s role is extremely powerful in shaping student behavior. There are essentially three ways that we signal students; in ascending order of effect, they are: formal communications, informal communications, and actions.

Generally, I think colleges do a great job with formal communications. In brochures and websites we all talk about quality over quantity, about how we care more about engagement than volume. At MIT, we try to be transparent when it comes to the criteria that we use to select students. On our website we publish a lot of unedited commentary from faculty, staff, and current students so we can give prospective students a look at how and why we do things, allowing them to enter the conversation, ask questions, and gain some clarity.

Informal communications are a bit harder to manage, but are perhaps more important. Colleges send signals to students in ways we may not realize. At MIT, we’ve redesigned our application because we realized that we were sending inadvertent messages of expecting too much; indeed, expecting things we really aren’t expecting. We reduced the number of spaces where students list their activities from 10 to 5, because no matter how many spaces you have, students feel as if they have to fill them up. Similarly, where we ask applicants to list their AP, IB or Cambridge GCSE classes, we now display only three spaces (students can click a button to add more if they wish).

What we ask about on our application also sends a message as to what we care about. In the very first essay question on our application we ask students what they do for fun. And we remind students that this is not a trick question. Indeed, in the instructions to our application, we say the following: "The truth is that we’re looking for balance. MIT is an intense educational experience — one that requires regular down-time to digest and process. The ability to prioritize and balance becomes very important. We’d like to hear about the ways you’ve embraced this in high school, because it’s a great (and necessary) skill for thriving here."

Finally, our actions speak the loudest. If we tell students that it’s O.K. to back off on their classes to make room for other activities, or simply to make room for balance and reflection, we must make decisions that align with those statements. But when students see others who chose quantity over quality gaining admission, this becomes their guide.  

But here is the thing: while it is true that some students have the bandwidth to do a lot and be successful, it is never the quantity of classes or activities that was the deciding factor in a college’s decision to admit them. And we should remember that for most students, loading up will simply lead to burnout and decreased performance.

There’s no doubt that we want students who have achieved good grades in a rigorous curriculum, but it doesn’t mean they need to take every rigorous class.  Calculus, advanced science? Yes, for sure (for MIT).  Every advanced science class? Not necessary. Human geography, psychology, and studio art? Again, only if you enjoy these subjects and the challenge they provide.  They’re not prerequisites, and they don’t add to any imaginary tally of APs.

A residential college experience is about the education of the whole person. And so the essence of what colleges want is for students to be engaged in whatever they are doing. We don’t want students who do things because they have to, or because they think it will look good on their résumé. We want students to do things because they find true enjoyment and personal growth from them. That’s the way that young people — and, for that matter, old people and middle-aged people — thrive.

I understand why those students from California might see participation in FIRST as a risk. It is a great example of an activity where you put in a huge amount of time and effort and you may not succeed with anything tangible. Your robot may not work and you will not receive a grade. But that risk is a telling one. It shows an understanding that it is the experience and not the trophy that is the reward.  

Rather than making FIRST an AP class, let’s recognize that activities such as FIRST have as much, if not more, value than an AP class. And everyone involved needs to help give students the confidence to pursue them.   

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