Sunday Times: College Prep Edition

I remember the first time I heard a high schooler call their college application a resume, as well as the first time I heard it called a portfolio.  It stood out to me because I think of both of those things as tools to represent a person’s body of work and skills.  Call me skeptical, but I don’t know that a high school student fits the bill there.

But a piece in the New York Times yesterday seemed to imply that my mindset is totally off.  Because, as both the title of the article as well as the students within it told me, students are “Planning Summer Breaks with an Eye on College Essays.”  They are portfolio building, one study abroad or specialized job shadowing opportunity at a time.

The piece highlights how “a dizzying array of summer programs have cropped up to feed the growing anxiety that summer must be used constructively.”

The anxiety seems to come from multiple sources.  Parents, yes.  There’s a nod to the Tiger mom in there.  And there are companies that prey on the anxiety and thereby perpetuate it by offering exotic (and expensive) internships or study courses in faraway lands.  But then there are the colleges and universities, some of whom “have shifted from valuing balanced students who excel in several areas, like history and ice hockey, to demanding students who perform well across all subjects and have an area of ‘mastery,’ like squash or fencing, that showcases one’s depth.”

First of all… squash=depth?

Have you played squash?

Fast forward four years, and you meet students preparing to exit the college they strove so hard to impress.  They look remarkably similar in their anxiety levels, sense of competition, and general worry that they are not good enough.  To be honest, when I watched it happen this spring, the first time since I was a student myself, I was a little stunned.

Perhaps these colleges are preparing students for the realities of an increasingly competitive and specialized world.  Maybe they are readying young minds to meet the challenges of their future field.  It could be that they are encouraging them to start early on the very things that will set them apart as they job hunt, seek promotions, or pursue new deals.

Or perhaps this is a reflection of a cultural trend that leaves adolescents to fend for themselves, better themselves, and compete by themselves because adults do not have their best in mind.  Adults have an agenda for them, and rather than relationally engaging with and raising up young people, we systemically and systematically push them to use their summer constructively.  (Or specialize in one sport, or whatever it is that is more about the resume than the growth of the kid.)

Dr. Chap Clark would opt for the latter, and his research and commentary in the book Hurt should be essential reading for anyone who cares about young people.  In a nutshell, his thesis is that adolescents have been systemically abandoned by adults.  He doesn’t mean each individual teen by their nuclear family (although too many teens experience that) but that on a macro level “adult-dom”, so to speak, does not really do their part to help teens.  Young people need support, need to be known and loved uniquely, need to be valued just as they are.  On the whole, we are neglecting this duty to them.

What do you think?  It is offering adventure?  Preparing for reality?  Helping them explore their passions?  Or pressuring them to perform? Forcing them to prematurely narrow their focus? Stripping away the fun of summertime?

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