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The College Admissions Passion Play

Publication Date: 2013-10-19

A mom reflects on the college essay requiring evidence of a childhood career of obsessive resume building--in The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 19, 2013.

My daughter, a high-school senior, seems like a strong college prospect: an avid learner with good grades and lots of extracurricular activities including varsity sports, student government and volunteer work. But with college early-admissions deadlines looming, doubt has now crept into her thinking. Poring over brochures and reflecting on her campus visits, this over-programmed teenager has discovered a glaring flaw: She has no "demonstrated passion."

Her varied interests, which once might have been considered a sign of well-roundedness, now apparently indicate to college-admissions officers a shallow inability to become obsessed with one particular interest.

Too late, she realized that she would have been better served by learning to become a master glassblower or by arranging Mozart's Requiem for steel drums.

Oh, the parental failure! How misguided we were in adopting the approach of letting her try many things, take risks and have fun.

Clearly, my husband and I should have forced her to pick one sportâ€"the more obscure the betterâ€"in which to strive for near-Olympian prowess. Better yet, she could have turned her fascination with the TV show "Bones" into summers at forensics camp or a homicide-unit internship. Anything to feed the admissions beast.

What constitutes a passion, anyway? What alchemy transforms a childhood fascination into Ivy League gold? I suspect that the kid once known as "enthusiastic" is now "passionate" simply for the sake of college. I guarantee that mercenary college consultants, hired by desperate parents, have crafted all manner of prefab passions according to what they claim will "work" on admissions boards at Harvard and Yale.

I recall one college representative telling us: "It doesn't matter what it is. We want to see genuine enthusiasm for something." Come on. Does online poker count? How, at age 18, can most kids be expected to have identified the thing that moves them above all else?

Of course, there are exceptions. My son, a 15-year-old, is a serious musician whose interests are narrow and consuming. His knowledge of early jazz and punk rock is astonishing. He is the poster child for discovered passion. But I should note that this is also a child who will often discover that he has forgotten his bus money, left his phone in his room and misplaced his lunch within an hour of leaving the house.

His sister, on the other hand, is more of a stickler: She refused to miss soccer practices for orthodontist appointments, so she wore braces much longer than necessary. A demonstrated passion for not skipping soccer practice probably isn't what colleges are looking for. Maybe they would like the fact that she worked full time for a month last summer to fund a trip to the Dominican Republic so that she could volunteer in a camp for Haitian refugees. But she's reluctant to piggyback on the life's work of the program's founder just for college-essay fodder. She also resists calling her volunteering a "passion." She wonders why she can't just be into something.

Coming from a teenager, a "passion" can seem manufactured. A friend of my daughter's recently declared that she has a passion for medieval history. Since ninth grade, this girl has wanted to go to the most competitive university in California, so I wonder, which came first, the medieval chicken or the top-tier egg? I'll leave it to the college-admissions officers to figure that one out. They asked for it.

Ms. Stabler is a writer living in San Francisco.

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