Does Every Kid Need a ‘Passion’?

Having one confers an edge in college admissions, but the pressure to find an all-consuming interest can backfire

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For a number of years now, “passion” has been a buzzword in college admissions. Having a passion is supposed to give an applicant an edge, and every summer and fall, I see students scrambling to find and articulate their passion as they begin working on their essays. This is a relatively new development; a decade or two ago, candidates were expected to be “well-rounded” and students would instead scramble to sign up for as many different clubs and extracurricular activities as they could fit into their calendars. Today’s emphasis on having a passion is more exacting — it requires early specialization, talent, time and often money — and can’t easily be faked.

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For some applicants, identifying a passion is a pretty easy task. In my practice advising students about college admissions, I’ve had clients who dedicate hours every day and most of their summers to dance, to singing, to lacrosse or swimming, to acting or figure skating. And I’m not going to lie: there’s something very compelling about passion. Or, perhaps more accurately, there’s something very compelling about people when they talk (or write) about their passion. But a lot of students don’t have some big, consuming passion. Or if they do, it’s either not too unique (reading, for example) or not the sort of thing you’d want to advertise on a college application (video games).

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So what happens to the students who don’t have a passion? All too often, well-meaning parents, teachers, or guidance counselors try to make them “find” one anyway, or even to direct their passions so that they’ll be more appealing to colleges. I worked with a student who wrote his own (remarkably good) Edgar Allen Poe-inspired graphic novel, but whose mother kept pushing him into more traditional painting (she was afraid the graphic novel might make people think her son was a potential school shooter!). I’ve worked with other parents who have latched onto the first sign of interest their child shows in something sufficiently impressive and done mad searches for summer programs to support that interest (one student spent a summer studying medicine in Boston even though, she confessed to me, she had no real interest in becoming a doctor). In the first instance, the student was discouraged from his actual passion so he would find one more “suitable”; in the second case, the student wasn’t even allowed to find what she loved because her parents had decided she ought to be passionate about something that was really just a passing interest.

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But I’ve seen a positive side to the search for a passion, too. I worked with a student a few years ago who was interested in photography; her mother was the very archetype of the Tiger Mom, concerned in doing whatever she could to help her daughter get into the best school. And so her daughter’s incipient love of photography, something non-academic that might have been quashed in favor of something more academic in decades past, was instead nurtured, and over the course of the several years I worked with the family, the daughter went from being a complete novice to a talented amateur who saw her photographs win contests. And as her success grew, so too did her confidence.

Perhaps most importantly, photography was her choice in a way that her academic path wasn’t. Sure, students exercise a measure of control over their academic destinies (How many AP courses? Which of a handful of elective classes?). But the greatest, unvarnished benefit of this new emphasis on passion is that it encourages students to find something that is truly theirs, to assert their identity and interests in a concrete way, to employ the discipline and to experience the challenges that come from the enthusiastic — indeed, passionate — engagement in an interest. Does every student need a passion? Not at all, and it certainly shouldn’t be forced upon them. But the search for one, done right, can be a tremendous boon.

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12 comments
ilemonsandlife
ilemonsandlife

I think your title is a bit misleading.

You explain your reasoning more fully of "harder to get into a particular school" in the article, but what I think of when I think of higher selectivity isn't pure numbers. For instance, say you got into highly selective schools when you were younger (I'm guessing you went to a selective school?). What was your SAT percentile? Extracurriculars? How were your Essays? Leadership? Talents? I think college selectivity is much higher nowadays in a way that many alumni of highly selective schools from only a decade or more ago wouldn't have made the cut at heir alma maters if they applied this year. 2400s and 4.0s no longer cut it. It's about being "special" too, and colleges are much more strict on what that "special" is.

I think parents are more and more worried about how their kids will measure up, and how much more they have to spend, worry, tutor, etc. to get their kids into ANY highly selective college, and that is the source of the anxiety. Do you really believe it is "easier" to get into a selective school now than a decade ago based on numbers?

Not saying that your article is in any way inaccurate, just a different perspective.

Merydith Willoughby
Merydith Willoughby

Life can be very hard if you don't have a passion or many of them. Discovering our passions is not a myth and that's our job as parents to help the child find out what they love to do. Not following your passion when you enter the workforce is horrible and life is just one day after the other. And productivity is unlikely to be high!

Passion, enthusiasm is what helps you traverse life's difficulties and can make it a rich existence for you and for those in your life.

Have a look at little kids - they are full of passion - they love every day and laugh many times throughout that period.

I firmly believe that we all have innate abilities - it is not luck to have them and as parents, we can help our children or those in our care to find them and then to nurture them. Much hard work will be required before we become skilled in these areas but it will be worth every single second that we apply ourselves.

My first book If it's it be: It's up to me, assists people to identify how to Live a Fantastic Life and when one is doing so, it is more likely that we will discover what we love, instead of whinging about, what we don't!

whatever0000
whatever0000

So you couldn't find a kid to write about who didn't have an overwhelming passion and is turning out okay?

Talendria
Talendria

This makes me sick.  Why can't we just let kids be kids?  Childhood is the only time in your life when you can try different things and enjoy yourself with no external pressure to succeed or profit from it.  Life is not a game of Monopoly.  The person who dies with the most money doesn't win.  In order to achieve true happiness each individual must find his own destiny unfettered by ridiculous educational trends.

ULURU
ULURU

Adolf Hitler as a youth had a passion for art - but the art world establishment rejected his efforts. He then went on to find a new passion. The rest is history.

Kimberly
Kimberly

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eetom
eetom

My passion is to live an easy-going life without any passion.  Anything other than is a second choice.

Timothy Lastrova
Timothy Lastrova

Most kids, heck most humans, don't have an overriding passion.  Just another myth to hurry the ants along.

Talendria
Talendria

The surest way to kill a passion is to make it a chore.  When I was 8, I fell in love with the piano.  I studied classical and wrote songs of my own.  Then my teacher and my mother put their heads together and decided I could be really good if I just practiced more and performed in recitals.  Between the two of them, they sucked all the joy out of it, and I took up writing stories instead.

Hill
Hill

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Juarez
Juarez

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