Can universities look beyond ‘cookie cutter’ achievement?

cookie cutter

I like my cookie cutter collection. They can stamp out shapes that all look alike and there is a variety for different holidays. Some are older and well-used, and others are hard to work with. (The Mickey Mouse one looked like so much fun, but the dough never quite tapped out of the corners.)

In life today, we often refer to some processes or people as having the “cookie cutter syndrome.” Coined in the ’60s amid some rather revolutionary social changes, it indicates lack of originality. Sometimes when I overhear statements that someone is smart, my mind immediately reverts to the “cookie cutter” definition that speaks to someone’s level of intelligence. Then again, there are many ways to define what smart means.

Define ‘smart’

Take a moment to think how you define it. In my lifetime, I have worked around some very intelligent and educated people with tremendous memories. I am in awe of their analytical minds. Yet other coworkers have displayed a high level of social intelligence, and are charismatic and persuasive in their interactions with people.

I appreciate my peers who are patient and can provide me an excellent example of emotional intelligence. And the best example of common sense came from an employee who barely finished high school, but was gifted and caring when it came to raising baby calves.

As an educator, I search for these different types of intelligence and uncommon brilliance among my students and 4-H’ers. Each plays an important role in the education process. If we fail to provide for and recognize any of the above types, how can we ever hope to understand the unique contribution each may have to offer to society?

‘College material’

Recently, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report that could revolutionize the college admission process. Turning the Tide examines the current process of measuring a student’s level of intelligence when it comes to the application. It also offers some suggestions on how schools and parents can improve to alleviate some of the stress for students to be accepted into the college of their choice.

The report even further indicates a link between academic pressures and mental health. New York Times columnist and author Frank Bruni indicates that the competition is fierce and there is often a feeling of inadequacy when that acceptance letter never comes. The report indicates there could be a trend by schools to put less emphasis on AP courses and class rank and more emphasis on less of a “cookie cutter” script during high school.

Uncovering passion

Both Bruni and the report feel there needs to be a way of encouraging genuine passions and evaluating those on the application. The report asserts that paying more attention to recommendation letters and essays rather than test scores could be a step in a better direction. For example, rather than listing a charitable organization to create an impression, more focus should attempt to figure out whether the experience was genuine, heartfelt, and sustained.

college admissions applicantIn another suggestion within the study, there is also a strong connection of the applicant’s involvement with family dynamics.

4-H and FFA already have such experiences as a part of their projects. They are hands-on and authentic and quite possibly the ideal method in how to really spot potential and assess ethical engagement. They come in project books, fair experiences, achievement forms, career development events, camping activities, leadership training, and the social interactions with others. Rather than individual achievement, the end result of caring for others seems to be the connecting force. In all the rhetoric of the report, it appears this result is what Turning the Tide is suggesting should be of greater importance than standardized test scores.

Parents’ role

If you are a parent, you can also affect some change by practicing the following:

  1. Encourage quality over quantity in experiences.
  2. Avoid “over-coaching” your children.
  3. Find alternate ways to define intelligence that are also attached to positive social and emotional activities.
  4. Maybe take some more time to complete 4-H achievement forms to document those authentic activities

New generation

Although this report may not command change, it is a desire to do things differently based on the needs of this generation. Perhaps a group whose needs are similar to those baby boomers of the ’60s who originally came up with the “cookie cutter” syndrome. These suggested changes are a flashback to my own experiences in 4-H and the college application process. Guess we don’t need a caucus, but this movement could level the playing field for all types of intelligence.


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Bonnie Ayars is a dairy program specialist at Ohio State University, coordinating all state 4-H dairy programs and coaching the OSU collegiate and 4-H dairy judging teams. She and her husband also own and operate a Brown Swiss and Guernsey cattle farm. In 1994, Bonnie was named Woman of the Year at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis.



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