Cultural Capital

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This year I’ve worked with students who are from both privileged families and unprivileged families. Students in each group want to talk about the other group. Each thinks the other has an advantage in the admissions process. I’ll share a little about the conversations I’ve had.

Privileged students sometimes say that their accomplishments will be disregarded. They have taken classes outside of school during the academic year or in the summer, developed activities and leadership experiences after school and in the summer, and prepared at length for standardized tests. They have worked hard, but sometimes worry that these accomplishments were made possible because their parents are willing and able to pay for activities. These students are often concerned that they have had few struggles, that they appear pampered, and that their biography will not dazzle an admission officer.

Unprivileged students sometimes say that their accomplishments will be disregarded. They work in menial jobs after school and in the summer, often caring for younger children or grandparents. They can participate in only a few extracurricular activities. They take standardized tests with little preparation, and have low scores. The parents ask if homework is complete, but cannot help; getting their children to activities is challenging. These students are often concerned that they can list few honors and activities on their application, that they appear unqualified, and that their biography will not dazzle an admission officer.

A holistic reading of an application often progresses in this order:

  1. Transcript, looking primarily for progression of difficulty, Honors/AP/IB classes, and how challenging these classes are compared to classes available to the student.

  2. Standardized test scores.

  3. Family information, to see how much support the student had making these choices.

  4. Essays.

Once the reader has the student’s academic strengths in mind and in context, the student’s story falls into place.

The following was posted on the National Association of College Admission Counselors listserv in 2005 by a high school teacher.  She developed this survey to help students understand how differences in family life, the most basic cultural capital available to a student, can differ. 

Take the survey below.  Put a check by every statement that applies to you and your home.

 

The following magazines are commonly found in my home:

____ Time  

____ Newsweek  

____ Atlantic   

____ The Economist  

____ National Geographic

 

____ My mother graduated from college.

 

____ My father graduated from college.

 

____ I have at least one sibling in college or who has graduated from college.

 

____ My family often takes trips out of state.

 

____ My family often takes trips out of the United States.

 

____ I have visited a number of colleges to help me choose which I want to attend.

 

____ I attended preschool as a child.

 

____ When I was a child, my parents read to me almost daily.

 

____ My family eats meals together regularly.

 

____ My family often discusses politics at the dinner table.

 

____ At least one of my relatives has a professional career (one requiring an advanced degree: doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer, upper level management).

 

____ If I wanted to do an internship, I know at least three adults who could help me find a position.

 

____ If I were offered an unpaid career internship in the summer for which I had to pay $2000, either I or my family would be willing and able to pay for it.

 

____ I have taken an SAT preparation class.

 

____ My parents are able to help me write clear, well-developed essays.

 

____ My parents are able to help me with advanced math homework.

 

____ My parents could pay for a tutor if I needed one in school.

 

____ My parents have always made it clear that going to college is a foregone conclusion.

 

____ My parents understand that a college is not a vocational training ground.

 

____ English is the language spoken in my home.