College Admissions Process Encourages Superficial Service

(p. 3) This summer, as last, Dylan Hernandez, 17, noticed a theme on the social media accounts of fellow students at his private Catholic high school in Flint, Mich.
“An awfully large percentage of my friends — skewing towards the affluent — are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa,” he wrote to me in a recent email. He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them “with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,” he explained. The captions tend to say something along the lines of, “This cutie made it so hard to leave.”
But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.
. . .
Hernandez reached out to me because he was familiar with writing I had done about the college admissions process. What he described is something that has long bothered me and other critics of that process: the persistent vogue among secondary-school students for so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.
It turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.
And it reflects a broader gaming of the admissions process that concerns me just as much, because of its potential to create strange habits and values in the students who go through it, telling them that success is a matter of superficial packaging and checking off the right boxes at the right time. That’s true only in some cases, and hardly the recipe for a life well lived.
. . .
Richard Weissbourd, a child psychologist and Harvard lecturer who has studied the admissions process in the interest of reforming it, recalled speaking with wealthy parents who had bought an orphanage in Botswana so their children could have a project to write and talk about. He later became aware of other parents who had bought an AIDS clinic in a similarly poor country for the same reason.
“It becomes contagious,” he said.
A more recent phenomenon is teenagers trying to demonstrate their leadership skills in addition to their compassion by starting their own fledgling nonprofit groups rather than contributing to ones that already exist — and that might be more practiced and efficient at what they do.
. . .
In many cases they are compelled. Tara Dowling, the director of college counseling at the Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, R.I., said that many secondary schools (including, as it happens, Dylan Hernandez’s) now require a minimum number of hours of service from students, whose schedules — jammed with sports, arts, SAT prep and more — leave little time for it.
Getting it done in one big Central American swoop becomes irresistible, and if that dilutes the intended meaning of the activity, who’s to blame: the students or the adults who set it up this way?

For the full commentary, see:
Bruni, Frank. “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., AUG. 14, 2016): 3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date AUG. 13, 2016.)

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