02/28/2011 11:13 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Harvard Interviewer's Haunting Memories

"We're Just Going to Chat for a While."

I was a Harvard alumnus interviewer for seventeen years. I never could have attended Harvard without its scholarship and campus paid work opportunities. I was the first in my family to attend college. Volunteering to interview students applying to Harvard was a way to give back to Harvard for taking a chance on me.

In an effort to personalize its admissions process, Harvard extends applicants an opportunity to meet with one of its alumni. To allow its applicants to "come alive," to see who they were beyond their mandatory grade transcript and essay submissions. To put "flesh on the bones." I met with them in my home.

By mid-February, I usually had finished my interviews. Last week I found myself reminiscing about some of the students I'd interviewed. Some of these interviews still haunt me. You'll see why.

They came to me with SATs pushing 1600 and more awards than military heroes. The valedictorians. The student leaders. The super-jocks. The golden boys and girls. They were applying to Harvard.

Acknowledging that most teens walk into these interviews with understandably heightened anxiety, my initial focus was to help them exhale their fears and worries about impressing me. "We're here so that Harvard can get to know you a little better. There are no right or wrong answers. We're just going to chat for a while," I offered calmly.

I tried to get beyond their Miss America-like, rehearsed responses -- "Harvard is the best environment available for me to pursue my premed studies." I looked for clues as to whether they'd make considerate roommates, inquisitive scholars, and active members of Harvard's numerous extracurricular and volunteer organizations. To find out more about who they were, not just what they had accomplished.

Far too often, these frightened, pressured high achievers had trouble finding their own voices. Instead, I heard them speak in the boilerplate, programmed, success-oriented words of their parents, teachers and college applications coaches.

The Hauntings

John* had listed cross-country as a sport he took up in his junior year. No athletic endeavors had preceded his high-school running. I asked what had drawn him to distance running and why he came to pursue it his junior year. He replied matter-of-factly, "My guidance counselor told me it would look good on my transcript if I had a sport. He said that colleges looked for well-rounded kids and that I needed something like a sport to better impress colleges. Time was running out and my junior year was the last year I could get a sport in before I sent in my applications. I joined cross-country because everyone makes it who tries out." "Do you like running? Being part of a team?" I hoped. "No," was his hollow reply.

Peter had scored two 800s on his SATs and was recognized as a National Merit Scholar. As we spoke of his favorite high school classes, I asked whether he had ever challenged any of his AP English teacher's opinions in class. Looking down at the floor, he spoke softly. "Sure, I used to disagree lots of times. I mean, there's usually some room for debate regarding Chekhov's use of symbolism, right? But every time I'd disagree with this teacher or our textbook's answers at the back of the book I'd end up getting marked down for it. So I learned it's better to give teachers what they want to hear so you'll get a better grade." Sadly, there was no anger or regret in his voice. Only resignation.

Sarah, class valedictorian and winner of numerous, prestigious math and science awards, spoke with a dull, disembodied affect about her academic triumphs and her future. "Math and science have always been easy for me. I don't like them nearly as much as literature but they're what I do best. I guess I'll major in them in college, get a graduate degree in them and then get an engineering job and get married. That's what my parents (survivors of Cambodia's killing fields) expect. They want me to get an engineering job and to get married as soon as I get my graduate degree. I hope that I can save up enough money so that I can retire early, like in my 50s, and travel." Sarah was 17, a broken sparrow, dying to be middle-aged.

Packaged for Success

Understand why these kids' voices still haunt me? Over those two decades, the children I interviewed had become progressively more packaged for success. They had been advised, persuaded, and professionally coached into believing that school's only purpose is to get the grades that will gain them admission into an elite college. A degree from a top college would then translate into a high-paying job and a secure financial future. That's the plan. The best plan. The only plan.

It's no wonder that an American Council on Education survey of more than 348,000 college freshmen reported that, "Academic credentials, rather than a love of learning, seem to be their motivation."

Shame on us all.

The siren's alarm begins in eighth or ninth grade. It all counts now! Every grade, every sports performance, every activity in or out of school. You're building your permanent record for college. It's time to get really serious!. As one student matter-of-factly explained to me, "The big transcript worries start freshman year and your whole life is pretty much determined by the end of junior year in high school."

We actually start scaring our hot house flower children much earlier than middle school or early high school. I've counseled many third and fourth grade kids who have seen me for school-related stress. They were not living up to their parents' expectations.

What You Can Do

So how do you raise children to become accomplished on their own terms, without surrendering their spirit?

First, stop hurrying and stealing their childhood, structuring and scheduling their every waking moment. Read David Elkind's prophetic, cautionary, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Perseus Books, 1988).

Don't frighten, bribe or otherwise manipulate them into believing that your master plan for a fulfilling life is the only possible path for them. Begin telling them as preschoolers that you appreciate, respect and admire them for who they are and what they stand for, not for the grades, achievements and reflected glory they bring you.

Encourage their natural sense of wonder and curiosities -- they will soon show you who they are and what fascinates them, if you pay attention -- regardless of whether costly college "handlers" deem them portfolio-advisable. Urge them to volunteer, to serve others, because it teaches them kindness, empathy and compassion, not because it will look good on their college transcripts. And sometimes volunteer as a family, because it's something your family values.

In short, love, encourage and abide with them as they become the people they choose to be.

* All student names have been changed