Parents, polish the passion

One morning last April, the same time of year high school seniors were heading back from colleges, a segment about the increasing number of outstanding students that had been rejected or put on waiting lists by colleges was scheduled for "The Today Show."

After repeated blurbs to capture viewers, it finally aired. What I observed was a beautiful young 30-something Ph.D. being hawked as an expert in the field of college counseling. She represented a New York-based program called IvyWise.

"Humph!" I thought with arrogance that comes from age and chagrin. This woman seemed to have stepped right out of central casting. With some more jaded cynicism, I thought her performance sounded a little tin when she mentioned having worked with students for years.

Now, now, do not be so skeptical, I thought to myself. My resolve to remain objective did not last when I heard her say she began seeing students in the eighth grade to prepare them for college. Barely out of elementary school and already planning for the Ivy League!

I was livid and wondered what cockamamie producer had put forth such a potentially damaging perspective without out at least countering it by having another expert discuss the ramifications of marketing children barely embarking on adolescence. Just imagine the stress when a child's entire junior high school and high school years are spent building a resume for college! Where is the logic in this?

Several weeks later, I read an article about a young Harvard freshman, Kaavya Viswanathan, who plagiarized parts of a recently published and now-infamous novel for which she had received a $500,000 advance. Forty passages in Ms. Viswanathan's book were lifted from Megan McCafferty popular teen novels.

Little, Brown, Ms. Viswanathan's publishers, decided to withdraw the plagiarized book from bookstores and recall all editions from store shelves. What of Ms. Viswanathan, I wondered, whose parents were, according to her own description, fixated upon her attending Harvard?

Interestingly, the New York Times article that was one of the first to describe the plagiarism also stated Ms. Viswanathan's parents had hired IvyWise at the tune of what could have been upwards of $10,000 to assist in building their daughter's college resume. Furthermore, the article suggested it was a counselor from that very service who proposed the young woman write a novel.

I, in no way, want to suggest this organization condones plagiarism. What I do object to is it and other similar services can perpetuate the feeding frenzy to be accepted into the Ivy League. Young Ms. Viswanathan now has made a mess out of her young life by trying to impress others with work she had not done.

Rather than contriving a persona, young people should be encouraged to pursue honestly developed interests that reflect passion. It also must be taken for granted some are always accepted to prestigious colleges, not on the basis of merit but because of the accident of birth. Being a really superior athlete, a mathematical prodigy or having brilliant proficiency in the arts and sciences may also open doors. These students are very few and makeup a minuscule proportion of acceptances.

This past year, one of my college prep students had a B average at a fine school. He had taken competitive classes but was nowhere near the top. Yet this same student received a thick envelope from the college of his choice and one of the Ivies. He is an avid birdwatcher who aspires to become an ornithologist. On weekends, he spent long hours walking along the Delaware River, telescope in hand, marking birds. His outside reading included subscriptions to birding magazines and books.

In keeping with this interest, he was aware the college of his choice, Cornell, had of the finest ornithology laboratories in the country. As part of his initial college search, this student contacted professors at the lab to inquire about other colleges that had similar departments. Members of the Cornell lab provided suggestions of other schools from which he developed a list of prospective schools that was not random.

When it came time to prepare his application, the essay topic he chose was close to his heart and beautifully conceived. It described his sighting of an American King vulture on a student travel to Costa Rica. An excerpt conveys his passion: "The American King vulture is solitary unlike other vultures that travel in groups. This bird is master of its own universe. It does not live in cities and exists only deep in the natural world where we were privileged visitors lucky enough to catch a glimpse."

Obviously, the Cornell admissions department realized how sincere this applicant was about his interests. Simply stated, contrived bloated resumes are often less likely to open doors than a deeply held and cultivated passion, which has grown over time.

Trumped up athletic resumes is another case that often results in burnout and disappointment rather than a gateway to the Ivies. Of course, there are individuals who are natural at a sport and will find a way to make it central in their lives without doing so at the expense of schoolwork.

K is a case in point. She was and is a squash player who needs no prodding to get up at 5 a.m. to practice. Her grades kept apace, and this gal eventually entered Harvard for both undergraduate and graduated degrees. Now married and working in New York City, she volunteers teaching inner-city youth to play squash.

Conversely, there are the millions of children whose parents invest hours and untold thousands of dollars, hoping a Division 1 school will accept their child. These tired children often are seen sitting in the back of an SUV, eating dinner from fast food restaurants while doing homework at the same time. After all, the hours spent preparing for college leaves little down time.

Small wonder that when these kids finally have freedom at school — often not their school of choice — they often get lost in mayhem, never having learned how to manage their time or negotiate the world for themselves. The really sad fact is those students who are continually pushed and programmed often grow to resent the very parent who wanted to help them get ahead. The time available for parenting, although intense, actually make up very few years in the relationship between parent and child.

When that time is consumed with what might happen in the future, real relationships can go undeveloped. These children often resent not having a childhood, and the parent resents having given up so much time and money over the years. How much healthier to have relished and established the building blocks that result in relationships over a lifetime!

These relationships come from, to coin a phrase, quality time, quiet times and thoughtful times. Thus, when you see a beautiful 30-something so-called college counselor on a network television show saying how she helps children plan for college from the eighth grade or younger, turn down the dial. This type of rhetoric comes from individuals who are not trying to help your family, but those who are merely trying to line their own purses at the expense of yours