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When the Angels Aren't Right

Bill Conley was watching his daughter play lacrosse one Saturday morning when he overheard two dads earnestly discussing college plans for their kids. "The key," one dad told the other, "is to get Sara committed to golf. I just read that there are 150 full-tuition girls golf scholarships that go unclaimed every year." Bill, who is dean of enrollment and academic services at Johns Hopkins, managed to keep mum but says the exchange is emblematic of a trend that has him worried. "We're seeing many parents whose message to their kids is, 'Don't dare do anything you love to do or want to do unless it will help you get into college,'" Bill says. "Kids are being engineered to make definitive commitments to one or two activities and then go for broke. It's really sad."

There's evidently been a seismic paradigm shift in the two decades since I was applying to colleges, an era when the big emphasis was on being "well-rounded." If you had strong SAT scores, played first-chair clarinet, lettered in several sports, and earned the lead in the school musical, you were a solid candidate at upper-tier colleges. Today, Bill tells me, the emphasis among Baby Boomers raising "Millennials" (kids born between 1980 and 2000) is on "angularity" — having a single distinctive talent that makes you a regional or even national standout.

To be fair, there are plenty of "angular" student superstars whose passion comes from within. The challenge for Bill Conley, director of undergraduate admissions John Latting, and their staff is distinguishing the self-driven types from those who've been "packaged." The former make enormous contributions to campus life. The latter suffer burnout at alarming rates, Bill says.

Happily, you don't have to look far among this year's freshman class to find kids whose passions seem to be the real deal. In "Freshman Sampler" we highlight just a few — among them a gourmet chef, cattle handler, Turkish basketball "freestyle" enthusiast, and published author. And there are dozens more impressively fascinating freshmen whom you won't see: an engineering student who grew the largest pumpkin at the Maryland State Fair; a young woman who trains with the Junior National Luge team; an award-winning dog handler; an Irish-dancing enthusiast. The list goes on.

"To me, these things are as exciting as being a National Merit finalist," says Bill Conley, "and these kids are genuine."

The take-home lesson for parents? Take a deep breath and let go. The "right" angles for our children are the ones they forge themselves.

-Sue De Pasquale

Return to November 2004 Table of Contents

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