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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