Leveraging The College Admissions Process To Benefit Students Through International Service Learning

by Leslie Smith, M.Ed.


The pressure to perform, compete, and excel for the purpose of building a robust college resume designed specifically to impress college admissions officers has a significant effect on many students. An increase in the number of college age students coupled with technology and the online application process have resulted in a massive increase in the number of college applications thereby accelerating competition to build a robust college resume. In addition, the effects of an extreme focus on exceptional grades in the most rigorous courses possible along with impressive accomplishments in an extensive list of extracurricular activities have left many students exhausted, discouraged, and stressed with little time to identify their strengths, truly discover and develop their passions, and cultivate real-world life skills. Furthermore, with college admission as the primary goal, individual success in terms of wealth, power, and fame are prioritized over caring for others and serving as a kind community member (Elmore, 2015; Weissbourd, 2011).

Because the college admissions process is powerfully positioned to influence the values, beliefs, and actions of students, parents, and the organizations that exist to serve them, this dynamic could be leveraged through international service learning to promote service, global awareness, leadership, and emotional intelligence. International service learning experiences have the potential to greatly benefit high school students by not only providing them with an opportunity to reflect upon and write about in their college admissions application, but they also provide an opportunity to improve their mental health and well-being as they connect with and serve others, which increases caring, compassion, and empathy. For the purposes of this paper, service learning refers to a community engagement pedagogy that combines “learning goals and community service in ways that can enhance both student growth and the common good… it is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities” (Center for Teaching. What is service learning or community engagement? section 1, para. 1).


Since 2002, the volume of college applications has significantly increased while the number of enrollment opportunities on four-year college campuses has remained relatively unchanged (Bound, Hershbein & Long, 2009). As a result, the number of admission offers and enrollment expansion has not kept pace with the number of applications generated (Redding, 2013). This has served to intensify the competition to secure a space on college campuses across the country, which has adversely affected high school students in a number of ways (Hurwitz & Kumar, 2015). There are a number of factors related to the increase in the volume of college applications. Over the past few decades, the perceived value of a college education has increased as it is associated with a number of positive outcomes including increased financial earnings, career opportunity and success, and intellectual, emotional, and social well being. Those with a bachelor’s degree typically yield greater median earnings and experience a lower rate of unemployment throughout their lifetime (Villarreal, Heckhausen, Lessard, Greenberger & Chen, 2015). As a result, many high school students aspire to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree because of its potential future benefits.

College rankings have proven to affect admissions outcomes, especially among those ranked within the top 25 colleges and universities in the country (Meredith, 2004). U.S. News and World Report is one of the most widely recognized sources for undergraduate college ranking, and for rating purposes, low selectivity and high yield are valued (Reingold, 2004).  As elite highly selective colleges battle for top rankings, students get caught in the crossfire of their “positional competition;” for these universities, the goal is a top ranking or specific place in line rather than an independently defined goal (Baum & McPherson, 2011). Because of the extensive publicity of the current U.S. News and World Report rankings and its easy online access worldwide, these rankings have the ability to significantly influence college applicants, despite the fact that there are several problems associated with the college ranking system (Meredith, 2004).

Technology has also played a significant role in the massive increase in the number of college applications, especially as it relates to the popularity and wide-use of the Common Application among colleges across the country. The Common Application makes the application process easier, which thereby encourages multiple submissions. As more applications are submitted, college admissions officers have a greater volume to sift through, which in turn increases competition and generates increased fear among applicants. The result exacerbates a vicious cycle as fearful students submit even more applications out of concern that colleges and universities are becoming increasingly more difficult to gain admission. For example, during the 2014-2015 application season, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) received a record 113,000 applications, comprised of 92,681 freshman applicants and 20,063 transfer applicants, which “makes UCLA the nation’s most applied-to four-year university” (Vazquez, January 12, 2015). As the number of applications has increased, so has the minimum threshold for admission criteria resulting in the need for students to achieve a higher grade point average, higher ACT or SAT scores, as well as increase their involvement in extracurricular activities and elicit stellar letters of reference.

The highly competitive college admissions process in the United States frames the profile that high school students aspire to achieve and has affected the way they are parented and educated. Many families go to extreme lengths to secure any kind of advantage in the competitive college admissions world, and children of affluent families have greater access to such advantages. Students are groomed from a young age to be high achievers so as to maximize their chances of becoming more attractive candidates to prestigious higher education institutions. For many parents, their “investment in college credentials begins with the right preschool and proceeds through the very best private-college counselors and beyond” (Baum and McPherson, 2011, p. 12; Jump, 2015). The competitive college admissions process consumes “an unhealthy level of importance in the lives of American teens…” and has filled private schools and generated “a lucrative industry of test prep and private college counseling. Test prep alone was estimated to bring in four billion dollars of revenue in 2009, and the field of private college consulting can come with a price tag in excess of $40,000 per student” (Redding, 2013, p. 33).

Other negative effects of the competitive college admissions process include physical and emotional ramifications as well. According to Jones and Ginsberg of the American Pediatric Academy (2006), the achievement pressure adolescents are experiencing from parents and high schools to get into a good college is producing the most anxious, stressed, and sleep-deprived generation ever. The American Psychological Association’s 2013 Stress in America survey revealed that “stress among adolescents has increased and is significantly affecting their mental health and well-being… the survey found that 13-17 year olds are experiencing stress levels higher than they consider to be healthy. School is the top source of stress for teens, followed by the pressure of getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school” (APA, 2016, Talking to Teens, section 1, para 2). More than 33% of teens report stress-related symptoms  including experiencing anger and irritability or feeling tired, anxious, or nervous, and more than 25% report changes in sleeping habits, feeling overwhelmed, neglecting responsibilities, and having negative thoughts (APA, 2013).

According to Gallagher (2014), a recent survey of college counseling centers has found that more than half their clients have severe psychological problems, and 44% of the students who visit their office experience periods of severe distress, which include depressions, anxiety, panic attacks, and suicidal ideation. In addition, “there has been a steady increase in the number of students arriving on campus that are already on psychiatric medication” (Gallagher, 2014, page 5). The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State (2014) reports that the most common mental health diagnoses among college students are anxiety and depression, and stressrelated insomnia, headaches, stomachaches, and high rates of alcohol, substance abuse, and risky behaviors have also been widely reported (as cited in Redding, 2013).

Achievement pressure associated with the college admissions process may lead aspiring prospective students to overly focus on performance and success resulting in a perfectionist fear of failure that potentially leads to negative emotions and even destructive behaviors (Redding, 2013; Madjar, Voltsis & Weinstock, 2013). Believing that their value is in their ability to perform, perfectionism can result in feelings of shame, hopelessness, and depression, which may lead to substance abuse, self-injury, and other risk-taking behaviors (Conner, Miles, Pope, 2014). Ironically, research by Suniya Luthar reveals that “children from affluent communities who are subjected to intense achievement pressure by their parents don’t appear to outperform other students” (Weissbourd & Jones, 2014, p. 2).

In an attempt to help their children create a favorable profile specifically for college admission purposes, many parents are overly involved and protective in childrearing. Many educators and coaches lament the challenges they face with parents who argue grades, team selection, playing time, and disciplinary action. Children do not have the opportunity to develop resilience and coping strategies when parents intervene and constantly protect them from adversity, all of which are important for long-term happiness (Weissbourd et al, 2014).

With so much focus and attention on the competitive college admissions process, it is not surprising that personal success including achievement, happiness, and hard work, are valued by American youth above fairness and concern for others (Weissbourd et al, 2014). While happiness, hard work, and achievement are important values, when they are prioritized over caring and fairness, “(youth) are at a greater risk of many forms of harmful behaviors, including being cruel, disrespectful, and dishonest… half of high school students admit to cheating on a test and nearly 75% admit to copying someone else’s homework” (Weissbourd et al, 2014, p. 1). When caring for others is not a priority, selfishness, indifference, and a lack of empathy are more prevalent, and children are less likely to develop key foundational relationship skills. According to Sara Konrath, there has been a significant decline in empathy since 2000; “college kids are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait” (Swanbrow, 2010. Empathy: college students don’t have as much as they used to, section 1, para. 3).

Problem Statement

The achievement pressure resulting from the highly competitive college admissions process has been referred to as an “achievement epidemic” by Alexis Redding (2013), and has influenced how adolescents are raised and educated, which has had a significant impact on their health, well-being, and perspective. The result of this pressure has produced the most anxious, stressed, sleep-deprived, narcissistic generation ever. Research reveals that narcissism among  college students has increased, and empathy has declined since 1980 with the most dramatic decrease since 2000 (Twenge & Campbell, 2009; Konrath, O’Brien & Hsing, 2011). A shift in the attitudes and behaviors among college age students illuminates the negative correlation between narcissism and empathy. For example, according to a study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2006, 81% of 18-25 year olds indicated that getting rich was among their most important goals; 64% revealed that it is their generation’s most important goal of all, whereas only 30% indicated that helping others who are in need of help is an important goal among their generation (Konrath, O’Brien & Hsing, 2011).

Individual success in terms of wealth, power, and fame are prioritized over the importance of caring for others (Elmore, 2015; Weissbourd, 2011). Although parents and teachers indicate that they prioritize developing caring children above achievement, a majority of youth believe that their parents and teachers are actually more concerned about their achievement than about them becoming caring members of their community. According to Weissbourd et al (2014), “62% of youth in our study perceive teachers as prioritizing ‘doing well academically’ as their top value, while only 15% of students saw ‘promoting caring in students’ as their teachers’ top priority” (p. 9). As a result, there is a need to examine the messages that are being communicated to children and youth daily, and the college admissions process can be leveraged to effect significant change, particularly through international service learning.

Purpose and Importance of this Study

The purpose of this study is to describe how the college admissions process is powerfully positioned to influence the values, beliefs, and actions of students, parents, and the organizations that exist to serve them, and how this dynamic could be leveraged through international service learning to promote service, global awareness, leadership, and emotional intelligence. This study is relevant because it reveals the underlying factors related to the social and emotional needs of today’s adolescents and identifies the need to evaluate current college admission policies and practices. Additionally, because college admissions is a primary focus for many students, parents, and educators, international service learning experiences have gained increased attention as a means to bolster the college resume thereby providing a great opportunity for meaningful learning and significant benefits for both students and the recipients of their service. As a result, the information obtained from this study can also be used to describe the benefits of international service learning.

Service Learning

Service learning refers to a community engagement pedagogy that combines “learning goals and community service in ways that can enhance both student growth and the common good… it is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities” (Center for Teaching. What is service learning or community engagement? section 1, para. 1). The Corporation for National Service defines service learning as a “method under which students learn and develop through active participation in… thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs, that (are) integrated into the students’ academic curriculum or provide structured time for [reflection, and] that enhance what is taught in school by extending student learning beyond the classroom and into the community…” (as cited in Furco, 1996, p. 2).

Service learning differs from other forms of experiential education in that it is reciprocal learning designed with the express purpose of providing benefits to both the provider and the recipient of the service; both the service and the learning that is occurring through the experience are emphasized (Furco, 1996). Service learning requires an academic context so that the experiences can be designed to ensure that the service is enhancing the learning and the learning is enhancing the service. The academic component not only differentiates service learning from other forms of experiential learning such as volunteerism, field-education, and internships, but it also compliments the preparation and pursuit of continued academic education associated with the college admissions process.

Although the academic component provides a unique distinction between other forms of experiential learning, service learning is predicated on David Kolb’s model that emphasizes that “learning is a continuous process grounded in experience” (Knowles, Holton, Swanson, 2015, p. 179). According to Kolb (1984), “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through transformation of experience” (p. 38), and the experiential learning cycle includes the following four modes that combine to create four distinct learning styles:

  1. Concrete experience. Learners have full involvement in new present experiences.
  2. Observation and reflection. Learners observe and reflect on the new experience from many perspectives, and inconsistencies between experience and understanding are particularly noteworthy.
  3. Formation of abstract concepts and generalizations. The learner’s observations and reflections modify existing or create new ideas, concepts, and theories.
  4. Active Experimentation. The learner applies new theories to solve problems and make decisions (McLeod, 2013; Knowles, Holton, Swanson, 2015, p. 182).

Through experiential service learning, students are placed in challenging real-life situations that expose them to new peoples and customs thereby offering opportunities to solve problems and to increase self-awareness and cultural sensitivity (Furco, 1996).

Adding an international travel component to the transformational experience of service learning provides additional benefits especially when considered in the context of the next generation of global leadership. As the world becomes more connected through travel and technology, a global marketplace has emerged necessitating the need for global leaders. Being able to identify both the global opportunities and challenges will require an international mindset coupled with global-centric leadership behaviors (Rosen et al. 2000, as cited in Mendenhall et al, 2013, p. 56). According to Jokinen (2005), global leadership competencies can be defined as “those universal qualities that enable individuals to perform their job outside their own national as well as organizational culture, no matter what their educational or ethnic background is, what functional area their job description represents, or what organization they come from” (as cited in Mendenhall et al. 2013, p. 114). Goldsmith, Greenberg, Robertson, and Hu-Chan (2003) maintain that there are fifteen dimensions of global leadership; ten of them have and will continue to be important for both global and domestic leadership, and the other following five will be especially important for the future: thinking globally, appreciating cultural diversity, developing technological savvy, building partnerships and alliances, and sharing leadership (as cited in Mendenhall et al, 2013, p. 58).

International service learning also provides a platform to bring awareness and to address a number of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) that were established in 2000 at the United Nations’ Millennium Summit. The Summit brought together 150 national leaders to set a standard that could measure progress towards the following eight specific goals (Boyer, 2013, p. 385):

  1. Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger
  2. Achieve Universal Primary Education 
  3. Promote gender Equality and Empower Women
  4. Reduce Child Mortality
  5. Improve Maternal Health
  6. Combat HIV/Aids, Malaria, and Other Diseases
  7. Ensure Environmental Sustainability
  8. Develop a Global Partnership for Development

Clearly, service learning yields significant benefits for both the provider and the recipients, as learning goals are met through service outcomes.


The college admissions process is powerfully positioned to influence the values, beliefs, and actions of students, parents, and the organizations that exist to serve them. This dynamic could be leveraged through international service learning to promote service, global awareness, leadership, and emotional intelligence. While international service learning experiences may initially be attractive as a means to bolster the college resume, they have the potential to greatly benefit high school students in a number of meaningful ways. They not only provide students with learning outcomes to reflect upon and write about in their college admissions application, but they also have the potential to improve their mental health and well-being as they connect and serve others, which increases caring, compassion, and empathy.

Because service learning emphasizes both learning goals and service equally, in addition to benefiting students who serve as “service providers,” the service outcomes of international service learning experiences also benefit its recipients. As the world becomes more connected through travel and technology, a global marketplace is emerging and service learning has the potential to impact the world as it promotes global awareness and cultural sensitivity while also  addressing a number of the world’s needs as highlighted by the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals. Because the college admissions process has such significant influence, leveraging international service learning can communicate a priority of developing caring citizens over individual achievement. Further study is needed to examine the effects of the college admissions process and the perils of achievement pressure and to provide alternative solutions such as international service learning experiences to promote positive, healthier outcomes.


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