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Learning at its Best

How I spent my summer vacation

Many years ago, when I was the student newspaper advisor at a big urban high school, I told my students, “I’m introducing a new grading system next semester that’s going to be more involved than what you’re used to.”

Basically, I informed them that they should not expect a rubber stamp A on their report card.

One student approached me after class and said, “Wait, Miranda, are you saying that there’s a chance I might get a B in this class next semester?”

I replied, “If you do outstanding work like you’re capable of, then I would expect you to earn an A.”

He bolted out of my room and came back about 20 minutes later with a paper for me to sign. “Sorry Miranda, no offense, but I’m dropping the class. I’m trying to get into Harvard and I can’t risk getting a B.”

Instead, he had arranged to be a TA for the principal. “I think I’ll be able to get him to write me a really good recommendation letter,” he said.

Months later, I was talking to a friend of this student, who told me that my former student had gotten into Harvard in the “early action” phase of the admissions process. It was January, and he still had five months left in his high school career. “Now, I don’t know what to do with myself,” he apparently told his friend. “My whole life was designed around getting into Harvard. Now that’s done and . . . I have no hobbies.”

* * *

The New York Times ran an eye-opening article this weekend titled, “For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers.” Here’s an excerpt:

Students preparing to apply to college are increasingly tailoring their summer plans with the goal of creating a standout personal statement—250 words or more—for the Common Application in which to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” Specialized, exotic and sometimes costly activities, they hope, will polish a skill, cultivate an interest and put them in the spotlight in a crowded field of straight-A students with strong test scores, community service hours and plenty of extracurricular activities.

A dizzying array of summer programs have cropped up to feed the growing anxiety that summer must be used constructively. Students can study health care in Rwanda, veterinary medicine in the Caribbean or cell cloning at Brown University, or learn about Sikkim, India’s only Buddhist state.

The article cites an example of a young man who spent the summer before his junior year in Nanjing, China learning Mandarin. The following summer, he returned to China to intern at a market research company. Consulting businesses are sprouting up to direct students to the summer activity will best enhance their college application.

* * *

It’s easy to be cynical about this trend—and, no doubt, I am—but there is another aspect of this that demands a closer look.

Consider the story of another student profiled in the article who told her college counselor about her passion for painting. The college counselor responded by connecting her with the Florida Highwaymen, “a band of renegade painters active during the 1950s and ’60s.” While the young woman admits that “I got to put it on my application,” she also said spending a day with an extraordinary group of artists was an amazing experience.

Even though kids are doing the right things (pursuing a personal passion) for the wrong reasons (to impress a group of strangers in a university admissions office), it’s easy to imagine doing the right things for the right reasons.

Pursuing a personal passion doesn’t have to be something kids cram into their lives to shine up a college application. What if the whole point of school was to help kids pursue activities that make their heart sing, simply because it is the most developmentally appropriate thing to do?

We can help kids get into college by creating programs that allow them to do the right things for the right reasons. We can do it if we redesign schools to support kids’ passion instead of demanding that they earn A’s in required classes.

In the process, we might even give them enough room to develop hobbies.

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5 thoughts on “How I spent my summer vacation

  1. The college admissions process frustrates me.

    If colleges want this kind of work, make it the centerpiece of admissions and let school systems create schools that allow for the exploration of deep and nuanced problems in local communities and around the world.

    Our mismatched mishmash of education priorities, funding, and profits is a practical, economic, and moral quagmire.

    Here’s to school systems, lives, and communities of learning and care built on right reasons, Steve –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 8, 2011, 3:45 pm
    • Chad, this is an awesome sentence: “Our mismatched mishmash of education priorities, funding, and profits is a practical, economic, and moral quagmire.” Brilliant.

      Your point about shifting the college admissions process is an important one. I recall about a decade ago Harvard issued a memo encouraging students to slow down, enjoy life more, take a gap year, and not be so stressed about being an overachiever. The message rings hollow, of course, if the school is going to continue screening its applications for superachievers.

      Posted by stevemiranda | August 8, 2011, 4:18 pm
      • Thanks, Steve – I’m trying to figure out how to approach the complexity all over again as the year begins.

        Higher education could change K-12 public education for the better through the admissions process. It would be great for something like the Gates Foundation to subsidize that work to ameliorate high ed profit losses from a different kind of process.

        Holding fast to dreams,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | August 9, 2011, 8:20 pm
  2. It’s a game.

    A very cynical one that privileges those in the know, fed on upper-middle class anxiety about attainment.

    After watching two of my 4 children apply to college:

    The Times piece was appalling, and they run a couple every summer. And the game only intensifies.


    Posted by Kirsten | August 11, 2011, 12:18 pm


  1. Pingback: Cal Newport provides the key for incubating innovation in students « Quantum Progress - August 11, 2011

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