The extreme things parents do to help their kids discover “passion”—and write a killer college essay

Not this.
Not this.
Image: Reuters/Eric Vidal
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Once upon a time, summer vacation was a time for American high schoolers to relax, spend time with friends and family, or get a summer job to make some money.

These days—for privileged kids, at any rate—summer offers another opportunity: curating the perfect experience to use for the all-important college essay.

That essay is the 250 words or more in which students hoping to get into university must describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” (Think the 18-year-old obsessive who self-published his first book on snake-rearing at age 10). As parents worry that kids need something to form the backbone of a stand-out personal statement, passion becomes paramount.

“Colleges have moved people from thinking they should be exceptionally well rounded to using the vocabulary that ‘well rounded’ means ‘no edge,” Bruce Poch, the former dean of admissions at Pomona College, told me for this story (paywall).

“The question we get a lot from parents is ‘how can you help my child find a passion?’” said Jill Tipograph, founder of Everything Summer & Beyond—a consultancy that “aligns its clients’ interests and extracurricular activities to help students find their passions.” She adds, “sometimes they haven’t taken the time to expose them to things where they can have likes or dislikes.”

So kids go passion-seeking.

That means internships in scientific labs trying to discover a cure for cancer, or academic courses at Harvard, like Modern Geometry: Thinking Outside the Plane. Kids go to coding camp, study Chinese in China, or create a more bespoke adventure, marrying an interest in something with travel abroad and even some community service.

Tipograph has created some pretty remarkable summer experiences. She helped one student combine her interest in French language and film-making by sending her to Iceland to film a documentary about conservation with French instructors this summer. She sent kids to Croatia to develop their STEM skills, and to Fiji to work on conservation in the Daintree Rainforest while earning PADI scuba certification on the Great Barrier Reef. Another program she recommended: traveling to Korea, where students meditate alongside Buddhist monks while studying Korean and exploring the relationship between peace and development.

Is it all a crass play for a topic for the college essay? No, of course not. “The summer should be about self-discovery, passion, broadening horizons and and getting out of your comfort zone,” she says. But, yes, “The outcome optimally would be better preparedness for college and the admissions process.”


Passion-seeking has its downsides. As Lisa Heffernan wrote in the New York Times (paywall), “For most children, childhood isn’t about passion, but rather about exploration.” Picking a passion too early, or artificially, halts the exploration.

And college admissions officers say they can see right through things like the check-a-box, exotic service trip. Ángel Pérez, who heads up admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told the New York Times (paywall), “The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest.”

A formative summer experience doesn’t need to be a $10,000 curated package. In June, Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer and researcher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education told me that for wealthier kids, drab summer jobs can help kids see the world through a new lens. “You see how hard people work, how rude and unthinking people can be to them,” he said. “It’s a real lesson in how to treat people.”

Tipograph too says that when kids talk about “service,” her first question is: What are you doing locally? If a teen is interested in service, “You should try to see if you can make a difference in people’s lives here.”

Weissbourd said summer should be about balance. “It’s often good to think of them having a range of experiences: downtime, service, work. It’s an opportunity for a kid to have exposure to something they won’t at any other time in their life.” Out of that might come something authentically college-essay-worthy.