THE BLOG
01/25/2016 01:52 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

Harvard Agrees: It's Time to Tell Applicants, 'You Are Enough'

I see it all the time: Imposter Syndrome in a thoughtful and talented seventeen year-old who has barely begun to understand what life will bring; who has racked up but a small fraction of achievements that are sure to follow; who thinks, for no reason at all and for all the reasons he or she has internalized during the unrelenting admissions madness, that he or she is not enough.

I have heard this from a student who can wax philosophical for hours about the meaning of life according to Aristotle and Plato, but whose SAT scores were "under par" for his target schools (mostly Ivies). I have heard it from someone who volunteers to teach English to students in Indonesia via Skype every Friday night, but who earned a C in 11th grade calculus (his least favorite class). The young woman who took care of her siblings while her mother had breast cancer -- who did not have time to join DECA because she was changing her mother's bandages after a double mastectomy? I heard it from her too. What about the pursuit of a higher education makes these students feel inadequate? Part of the problem is how applicants are taught to value and rank colleges. The more troubling component has to do with how colleges have learned to value young minds and motivations.

A recent study conducted by Harvard and entitled "Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good," confirmed what educators, parents and overworked applicants have been saying for years: The admissions process is broken. While applying to college has always been a stress-inducing affair, over the past decade, the pressure cooker has been set to explode as it overflows with ever more ingredients including test scores, AP classes, near-perfect grades, high-profile internships and extensive volunteer work. Students overextend themselves to the point of exhaustion, working towards the goal of attending elite schools and often considering reputation before fit.

As a college essay advisor with over a decade's worth of experience helping students identify and express compelling personal stories, I have seen this overemphasis on achievement for achievement's sake manifest itself in different forms. Many students undervalue their own interests and accomplishments. A few years ago, a student with a self-cultivated ornithology obsession to which she has devoted considerable time, did not even mention her love of nature until two hours into our first conversation. When I plucked it from amidst her ramblings, her reaction was: "Won't people think that's boring?"

Another student, who spent his afternoons visiting a 100-year-old woman every week for two years, just to keep her company, told me that "service essays are overdone." In a way he was right. Staid personal statements that belie disconnection with a cause often sound cliché and self-congratulatory. But when you have spent hours poring through photo albums with your senior citizen bestie? That is where dreams and dream essays are made.

This proclivity for undervaluing meaningful interests and actions extends to mom and dad as well. Students and their parents are trained to see limitations, not potential. This is part of the damage the current admissions system inflicts.

On the other end of the spectrum are students trying to conquer the world in their teens; the ones that do so much I wonder when they eat and sleep. These students are in all AP classes and have exemplary grade point averages and SAT scores. They have checked every box, but when they come seeking essay help, they are stumped. When I ask them why they volunteered for a Sloan Kettering walk-a-thon the honest ones tell me, "I thought it would look good on my application." Their answer to, "Why do you want to go to this school?" is, "Because it's the best."

One of my students -- a brilliant, science and politics-minded international candidate -- was so hung up on what she thought colleges wanted to hear ("I need to sound smart"), she was incapable writing anything personal. In conversation, she was descriptive and passionate about righting housing inequalities through architectural innovation. On the page, she was flat and clinical. Though she was a more-than-competent writer, her authentic thoughts and feelings were overrun by her goals and what she thought she needed to do to achieve them.

These stories do not represent all applicants. Plenty of ambitious 17-year-olds work hard, attend top colleges, and are madly successful in their professions. Still, these tales are indicative of a trend in which admission to a top college is the aim, instead of the result of meaningful pursuits. In my experience, very few students in recent admissions cycles -- whether undervalued or over-prepared -- understood what interested them or what they could add to the world around them.

This, to me, is one of the saddest byproducts of the current admissions landscape -- ambivalence. How can we raise responsible citizens when we're teaching students to put themselves first? When will students explore their own curiosity if their actions for four years (or more) are centered around a singular, pre-determined goal?

Up until this point, the admissions essay is one of the only tools students have had to humanize an otherwise robotic application process. A good essay provides an understanding of larger issues and explores a student's true sense of self. But increasingly, before students can even break ground on describing themselves in an authentic way, they need to unlearn what they have been taught -- that small moments don't mean anything. That what they have to offer isn't worthy, unless they won the Olympics. That essays about selflessness and service are overdone and won't be embraced by admissions officers.

Encouraging students to follow their passions, pursue intellectual curiosity and discover the rewards inherent in helping others will, as the "Turning the Tide" study intends, "promote the common good." Furthermore, it will build a society of people who, despite their failure to climb Mount Everest and cure cancer before they receive their driver's licenses, truly believe they are enough, and for the right reasons.