Column: Searching for the magic formula
So what's the secret to college admissions success? Concentrate on one thing and do it well? Or sample lots of things at the risk of spreading yourself too thin? And how does any of this translate into success beyond the admissions game? Andrea Park ponders the mysteries.
Gargoyle assistant editor
Posted Thursday, April 26, 2007
“RAY” CARRUBBA, WHO I would first like to point out is the best physics teacher ever (brownie points?), recently commented on Sarah Pfander's column “The future freaks me out.”
“The reason we have so many ‘overachievers' is not because we demand so much of students but because — ironically, or not — our standards are so low,” Ray wrote. “Kids today do everything! But they don't do any of it terribly well. Meanwhile, they get no sleep, make themselves sick and stressed out, waste time and money chasing college admissions strategies, and — worst of all — miss the most important lesson: doing one thing well is the key to success, whereas doing dozens of things at minimal competence gets you nowhere.”
This comment is, well, blunt. But scarier than the lack of sugarcoated fluff is that this comment is extremely true.
I know very, very few students who put their heart and soul into one activity, or, better said, one passion. As a result, I don't know very many students who are phenomenal at what they do.
I don't know anyone who is as intense as my mom was. As a high school student she drove an hour to spend every weekend, and some weeknights, at Julliard with a fat, mean piano teacher who would slap her hands if she fumbled on Liszt's “Grandes Etudes de Paganini, La Campanella.” The ebony wood on her old piano, which stands in our living room, is worn and scratched from the constant striking.
I don't know someone like my swim coach, who, at the age of 11, began waking up at 4 a.m. in order to reach her dream of making the Olympic Trials.
However, my mom and my swim coach are anomalies. They are a part of the special few who were blessed at birth with a raw talent. The problem is that the majority of us don't have such talent.
Although I'm not saying one needs talent to fuel passion, realistically one needs talent to successfully pursue that passion (which is vitally important in the context of college admissions).
For example, I can have a passion for volleyball. However, with my short stature and extreme bulk, I just won't cut it in the real world as a real-time volleyball player. I can practice for hours on end, I can certainly be passionate about the sport, but how does that help me if I can't even make the high school team? All those grueling hours of practice, and I've got nothing.
So instead of pouring all my time into my passion, doesn't it make sense to dip my feet into everything? Shouldn't I audition for the school play, run on the track team, and participate in a protest on the Quad? That seems, to me, a better use of my time. Maybe after I've tried everything out, after I've spread myself out way too thin, I can figure out what my talent is, and hope that a passion can grow from those roots.
Furthermore, isn't part of the point of high school to try everything? Sure, Suzie may realize that she is a gifted potter, but she would learn so much about team spirit and team bonding from being on the Uni High girls swim team.
While I agree with Ray that high schoolers spread themselves out too thin to impress college admissions officers, specializing in one area is a harsh demand. First off, how does one know what to pursue? Is it worth it? Maybe at the end of four years one will realize that they've been pouring their heart into the wrong thing. Then what?
Secondly, pursuing one passion, I can guess, could easily lead to boredom and a feeling of emptiness. While solving Calculus 14 math problems is impressive, and most of the time satisfying, doing it all the time can be repetitive, maybe even suppressing. After all, isn't variety the spice of life?
But, a feeling of loss will creep into little Max's heart when, driving home from school to crack that difficult problem, he sees all of his laughing buds board a bus for the basketball game in Monticello.
So maybe the thing to do, though naive and easy to say, is not to worry about looking good on paper. If you're happy and you like playing three varsity sports at Uni, do it. If you like practicing your flute until your throat goes dry, then do it, too.
But the cruel reality is that there is no formula to get into college. Whether it's being a humanitarian/entrepreneur/nationally ranked golfer/actress/math whiz/poet/12-varsity athlete/activist or a hardcore, seriously talented beat-boxer (who goes to the nightclubs not to shack up with a fine female, but to establish connections so his basement-recorded album can sell), no one can be 100 percent sure.
So, it's unrealistic for me to say, “Don't worry about impressing the admissions officer,” because that's what the reality of high school is — trying to crack the admissions formula. Trying to play the game. The goal of high school today is to become someone and something that looks good, sounds good, reads good, and fits inside a manila envelope.
So what am I trying to say? I don't really know myself. But, I don't think pursuing one thing is the answer, either. It's too hard to first find something that you really want to pour your heart and soul into, and on top of that be talented enough to find success.
On the other hand, we shouldn't spread ourselves out too thin. Ray's right when he says students do everything and nothing at the same time. It's a pointless waste of time to be a varsity athlete, actress, and budding philosopher when you're not that good at any of these things.
— Gargoyle column: The future freaks me out
— New York Times: New York Times: For Girls, It's Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too
— Alexandra Robbins: “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids”