An unfortunate reality for kids and teens today is that the pre-college process seems to be infinite and overwhelming. Kids are specializing in certain activities at ever younger ages, attempting to demonstrate a commitment to an interest they aren’t even sure of yet, because they feel that, down the road, this dedication will be valued in the college process. Teens are continually seeking opportunities to display all-important “leadership” traits, even when the programs they are leading do not interest them, or their personalities don’t particularly lend themselves well to leadership (which is discussed in this fascinating New York Times piece, Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.) The most striking takeaway of this evolution is that kids and teens are less focused than ever on discovering who they are. Instead, during these vital developmental years, they are dedicating their efforts to becoming who they think colleges want them to be.
But here’s the thing: you can’t fake who you are – the years leading up to the admissions process are long, the admissions process is grueling, and a college will ultimately be able to sense whether a student’s passions and commitments are genuine or forced. Committing to an activity or an interest solely because it feels unique or prestigious will only hinder a child or teen’s ability to find their true passions, and hasten the burnout that all too frequently experience as a part of high school today.
That’s why, when we work with kids and teens, we always strive to identify camps or programs that will allow a child or teen to develop into the best version of themselves. We focus on fit, and find that this allows children and teens to evolve and mature as people – and after several summers and school years of discovering and exploring genuine interests in appropriate settings, these children and teens ultimately find themselves well prepared for the next stage in their lives.
As a camp counselor, I have dealt with the unfortunate difficulty that arises when a child is not in the right place. I spent one summer working at a boy’s camp with a sports-heavy program, where I lived in a bunk with the youngest boys. This camp was nurturing and well-run, the staff were well-trained, and yet, for one particular boy, the summer was a consistent challenge. He was a sensitive kid who did not like sports, did not want to play sports, and had interests that were – for an eight year old boy – eclectic (he loved hiking, nature and the arts). He had some trouble making friends with the other sports-crazed boys his age, and needed extra nurturing and attention throughout the summer to be successful. On visiting day, his parents revealed to me that the reason they had sent him to this particular camp was because they wanted him to become more competitive and assertive. Unfortunately, that is simply not how personality development works – this child missed out on the opportunity to attend a camp where he could fit in, thrive, and become more comfortable with himself; and he ended the summer as sweet, sensitive, and non-competitive as he began.
When working with high-school students, we are often asked to identify programs that will make them more compelling college candidates. However, our years of experience has taught us that there is no magical program that unlocks the doors to Harvard or Yale, or similar. Instead, summers are about exploring, discovering, and building upon genuinely held interests; and honing skills. We always place a great deal of emphasis on a teen taking ownership of their summer – if the teen is not interested in a program, they will not invest the energy needed to have a successful summer. Conversely, if a student approaches a program enthusiastically and with an open mind, they will not only get more from the program itself, but may be more willing and able to reflect and learn about themselves as people. These experiences are ultimately invaluable, and when articulated in a college essay or interview, can be hugely helpful during the college admissions process.
There was one particular story in the New York Times article mentioned above that is indicative of the benefit of valuing fit over perceived prestige. A young, introverted girl who enjoyed reading and playing cello, entered high-school and immediately felt she had to prove herself a “leader”, despite having a personality that was in no way predisposed towards traditional leadership. She attempted to change who she was, and was ultimately selected as a prestigious “freshman mentor;” however she could not sustain her position and was ultimately removed from the program because she was not outgoing enough. In her newfound afterschool free time, she began working with a genetics teacher at school – a few short years later she was academically published, received the highest scholarship her university offers, and is pursuing a two majors: biomedical engineering and cello.
You may not be a cellist or scientist; you also may not be a community leader, chess-master, musical whistler, or one of the other myriad high-schoolers who seem to have luckily stumbled upon the niche of their passion. However, if you have genuine interests and explore them earnestly, you will find that you will quickly become the most compelling – and most importantly, happiest – version of yourself. And when it’s all said and done, being yourself is more than enough.