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Parents: Colleges want kids with 'a passion'

"Passion" is the buzzword among some admissions directors. Students should pick one thing -- two are okay, too -- that they are truly passionate about as well, of course, as getting good grades and test scores, the directors advise.
A senior at Montgomery Blair, Karla Berberich, 17, works on her college application at her home in Silver Spring, MD, on Sunday.Kevin Clark / The Washington Post
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Parents: You've designed schedules, organized carpools, parlayed your way into the right camps for 12 long years. Piano lessons at 3, Spanish classes at 5, soccer games from age 8 through 14, a panoply of activities designed to give your kid the upper hand in getting into the college of her dreams.

Now it looks like having a "well-rounded" kid is out. Your kid must have "a passion" -- at least in certain academic circles.

"Passion" is the buzzword among some admissions directors. Students should pick one thing -- two are okay, too -- that they are truly passionate about as well, of course, as getting good grades and test scores, the directors advise. Select schools want the hyper-focused, the expert oboist or mathematician.

"I think most of us tend to gravitate toward the student who has pursued a strong passion in a particular area or areas," said Steven T. Syverson, admissions director at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

To which Gail Berson, dean of admissions at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., said: "There are plenty of adults who don't have a passion for something. Why should we expect it of high school seniors?"

For a long time, students were urged to be bright, well-rounded kids, and applicants packed applications with mile-long lists of activities.

It became silly, some admissions directors said. "It occasionally leaves one wondering when the student sleeps," said Texas Christian University Admissions Dean Raymond A. Brown. And some admissions officials acknowledge that they became jaded by all the young overachievers.

"A serious focus on one area often gives us a glimpse of other traits -- discipline, focus, intensity, tenacity, intellectual depth," Syverson said.

Hesitation at new push for 'a passion'
Karla Berberich, 17, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County, said her high school counselors and teachers told her that well-rounded is fine but that "it's more important that you find something you are passionate about."

She found her passion -- television production -- but now she is not so sure she wants to stick with it.

"I think a lot of us fear we have to know what we want to do," she said. "I'm only 17. But I still have to go to college with some idea of what I want to do."

Others share her hesitation.

"What an absurd notion: Find a passion!" said Scott White, director of Guidance at Montclair High School in New Jersey. "It is not something you can find. It is something you either have or don't have."

Jason Meer, also 17 and a senior at Montgomery Blair, said he can't present himself as something he is not. He is a young man interested in a lot of things, he said.

"To say I'm very strong in one area would be a misrepresentation," he said. "I've heard colleges are looking for kids like that. But for me, I think someone who is multifaceted is more interesting."

Carol Lunkenheimer, dean of undergraduate admissions at Northwestern University, would agree with Jason: "Well-rounded students are the bread and butter of every freshman class."

Bleary-eyed high school seniors are filling out applications, collecting recommendations and scribbling essays, all the while laboring under some false notions, admissions directors say.

"The biggest misperception is that academic statistics are the only thing that matter in a competitive admissions process," said Lee Coffin, admissions dean at Tufts University in Boston, saying his team looks not only at data but at "voice."

Lisa Jacobson, chief executive of the private college counseling firm Inspirica, said the highest grades and standardized test scores are no longer a guarantee of getting into a school -- not even one considered a "safety" school.

No one way to get into college
The bottom line about how to get into college is that there isn't one, Syverson said.

"It's a big mistake to generalize about college admissions," said Fred Hargadon, a former admissions dean for several decades, including 15 years at Princeton University. "Big schools vary from small schools, commuter schools from non-commuter, private from public. . . . There isn't one admissions system that applies to very many schools."

Hargadon said it should all come down to a mix of students.

"Some kids are really outstanding in a given field," he said, "but that's a relatively small number, and it is usually in fields like physics or math or in music.

"But I have too many memories of great kids that really didn't have one outstanding characteristic but seemed like they just would be great people to meet, to know, to go to school with and would have a high growth potential. . . . They often turned out to be the ones who made the class gel. And I worry that they will slip through the cracks if everybody is categorizing them."