passion in the admissions processIs Every Ambitious Teenager a Founder & CEO?

Recently, I came across an article in The New Yorker, entitled “Is Every Ambitious Teen-ager a ‘Founder and CEO’?” It describes a handful of talented and motivated teens, “overachievers” from a “highly competitive school district” in the Bay Area of San Francisco, and reflects a recent trend of ambitious high school students who hope to impress admissions officers at highly selective colleges.

These students are dubbing themselves CEOs, founding companies with missions ranging from STEM-focused blogs, to digital learning platforms, to bringing food and resources to underserved communities by organizing donations and transportation. Many were started when the pandemic left a dearth of extra-curricular opportunities. Rather than bemoan the absence of more traditional outlets, these students created their own.

Are You Motivated By Passion?

These are truly notable endeavors. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what motivations were behind their actions. Further, I worried that the message this telegraphs to other high school students aspiring to study at selective colleges is that they, too, must start a business or, for that matter, discover a planet or a cure for cancer, in order to compete for a spot in their freshman class.

Recognizing Authenticity

Here’s the thing. Admissions officers are really good at their jobs. They read thousands of applications, often at remarkable speeds. This means they’ve honed skills that allow them to quickly recognize authenticity in the extra-curricular pursuits of their applicants. And genuine passion shows through not only in extracurriculars, but also in recommendation letters, personal statements, supplementary essays, interviews, and even course selection. Do these elements of the application have a common thread? In conjunction, do they tell the student’s story in a compelling and convincing manner? Or do they look like a list of impressive accomplishments that come across as disjointed or jumbled? Students need to check their reasons for pursuing activities: Is this something I want to do? Is this something I love to do? Could I see myself doing something like this beyond college? Please don’t misunderstand. The student-CEOs portrayed in the article may genuinely be engaged in activities they’re passionate about, but it’s important that that passion comes through in other elements of the college application, too.

The Admissions Process is Subjective

Furthermore, even if a student presents the most coherent and polished application, one which from the outside would seem like a “sure admit,” the admissions process is rather subjective, and that level of subjectivity varies from college to college, university to university, and even from one admissions cycle to the next. Students and parents have little to no control over certain considerations, such as the strength of recommendation letters, the quality the applicant pool, or even the mood and exhaustion level of the admissions rep who’s reading an essay. Additionally, students and parents often don’t recognize that admissions offices are charged with shaping a well-rounded freshman class, and what that means can vary from year to year and school to school as well. Applicants can become pieces of a puzzle that admissions needs to assemble. For instance, Yale might need more admits interested in engineering one year but sociology the next. Dartmouth could want fewer students from the Northeast and more from the Midwest. Northwestern might want a music major but one focused on jazz and not classical. (Please note these are only hypotheticals.) The point is, when a high school student begins to formulate what they think will look enticing to a scrupulous admissions officer, by the time they press the Common App “submit” button and their application goes through review after review, the needs of the university may be somewhat different.

Focus on Your Passion or Interests

So, to all the students out there aspiring to attend college, my message to you is this: Don’t try to predict the unpredictable. Don’t narrowly focus on selecting ways to impress an admissions audience when the truth is there’s no way to know exactly what that is. Instead, trust your instincts. Rely on your authentic interests. You’re in control of how you spend your time, so think that through deliberately and thoughtfully. Chances are, if you engage in activities that excite you, that ignite you, that activate you, then you’ll make a great impression. Just be sure that passion is your guide.  Colleges know it when they see it.

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