According to Irena Smith, the private college counselor and former Stanford admissions officer, much of the emphasis placed on summer enrichment is largely overhyped. When they do speak up in the media, admissions officers tend to echo this sentiment. Janet Lavin Rapelye, the dean of admission at Princeton, told the New York Times that students should “use the criterion of interest when selecting extracurricular activities, rather than how a list of activities might appear to a college admission office.” A former Stanford University dean of freshmen wrote a column in the same newspaper saying that many of the students she encountered “taught me that a pre-programmed, enriched, spoon-fed, caged-in, ‘checklisted childhood’ may in fact lead to an impressive ‘resume’ and even admission to a highly selective college, but that such achievements can come at the expense of self-efficacy—a true, innate sense of self that is undermined when a person has too much of the stuff of life planned and handled for them.”
Smith recalls a student who wrote an essay about working her summers in a fast-food restaurant, and was accepted to several Ivy League schools. “Given the population of students I see, she probably shone like a diamond in the applicant pool at Harvard,” Smith says flatly, emphasizing that the student’s unique way of looking at the world and the way she wrote had more to do with her acceptance than the exact circumstances of her summer job.
“I’ve worked with students who have spent their summers traveling to rural China with their family, to working at Coldstone Creamery, to doing pretty high level research in a lab, to sometimes just kind of being lazy,” Smith says. “I think the biggest misconception people have is that there are these magical things you can do each summer that will get your kid into the perfect college.”
Furthermore, recent studies have shown that kids with overly involved parents tend to grow into more vulnerable, anxious, and self-conscious young adults, and there may even be correlation between helicopter parenting and kids with diagnosed anxiety and depression. Or worse. In Rosin’s piece, an undeniable correlation is drawn between the suicides of Palo Alto high-school students and the intense pressure they feel towards the future—beginning with, of course, getting into a top college.
The irony is, much of the work and the struggle may be unnecessary, and even detrimental to a successful future. “Whatever the student does should be theirs to find and to like or not like,” Smith says, “rather than have a well meaning adult carefully steering them so they avoid all the dead ends and sharp corners. You don’t learn a lot if your whole life path is charted.”