A response to New York Magazine’s Cover Article, Inventing the College Applicant.
New York Magazine recently published a scathing cover article titled, Inventing the College Applicant. It features Chris Rim and his company, Command Education, one of the most pricey and controversial education consultancies in the country, to shed light on the world of private college consulting. The ethics and politics of private education at large and in particular private college consulting is a complex subject that I don’t intend to address here. I want to focus on the article’s harmful framing of teen passion projects as an inauthentic tactic used to get into top colleges.
The teen passion project, when done for the right reasons, is an incredibly effective educational model for teens. The right reason for teens to do a passion project is to accelerate developmental outcomes (confidence, skills and expertise) not to boost their college admissions chances.
Backed by rigorous research, schools across the country have come to the same conclusion; project-based learning (PBL) improves student outcomes. The developmental and psychological benefits of an adolescent seeking and pursuing their passions is clear. As a result, passion projects have grown in popularity. High schools have moved to give more academic credits and staff support to them, often calling them different names like independent or capstone projects.
The problem arises when a student pursues a passion project for extrinsic reasons – to get into college – and not with the intrinsic motivation of having increased autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This is where Chris Rim and so many others in the private education consulting industry go astray. Everything is optimized for one outcome: college admissions. Educators are right to take offense with this approach.
At Spike Lab we have grappled with this for a long time. Nine years ago when I started this work, my goal was to create the best startup incubator for teens. I had gone through some of the top startup incubators and received some of the best entrepreneurship educational programming, i.e. Stanford Business School and Stanford d.School. Later I ran a non-profit, education-focused startup incubator at 4.0 Schools. I was trying to figure out a way to redesign this type of adult/professional programming but for teens who are at a very different moment of their lives. However, I kept running into one big obstacle: time. Teens are overscheduled in high school and they struggled to schedule time for their passion projects; they didn’t prioritize the project in their weekly schedules over enough of their other academic and extracurricular commitments. Then it clicked; I realized that selective colleges actually value ambitious passion projects more than most other extracurriculars. I also connected it to my own journey. I was a well-rounded high schooler (cum laude at a top NYC private school, captain of two teams and more), but I got rejected from Stanford. After college I started a nonprofit in Argentina and ran it for five years (my passion project) and then got into all the business schools that I applied to, including Stanford and Harvard. My academics hadn’t changed much so, in my mind, my non-profit clearly made the difference. In short, I realized that entrepreneurially-oriented students would benefit both intrinsically and extrinsically if they pursued a passion project. After reading this article, we started using the term, spike, for a passion project to emphasize that colleges now usually prefer pointy, not well-rounded students. And it was at this time that we named our program Spike Lab.
We started down a path similar to Command Education and could have easily continued further down the same path, but very quickly realized that we weren’t comfortable with it. We had many difficult internal debates, and, after a couple years, we made the decision to shift to become education-first, not college-first. We wanted to be the best at helping students identify and develop passion projects that in turn instill a mission-mindset, innovation skills and self-confidence. We took almost all college admissions-focused messaging out of our website and stopped giving college admissions webinars. We stopped all college-oriented marketing to families and focused our marketing almost exclusively on partnering with education/college consultants and schools to refer us students. This marketing model aligned better with our decision to be education-first.
However, we recognize that college admissions also matters and needs to be designed into the experience. The system is set up that way, and colleges should put weight on student curiosity, leadership and passion.
The messy truth is that there are four primary benefits of pursuing an ambitious passion project, and all are real and important:
- Learn How to Build Something With Real-World Impact
- Develop Purpose and Pride
- Develop Lifelong Innovation Skills
- Boost College Results
We want our students to benefit in all these dimensions, but it’s a question of weighting. As a program, Spike Lab puts emphasis on the first three, and we know that the fourth (a stronger college candidacy profile) is a natural by-product of the others. We believe that doing a passion project primarily to boost college results is inauthentic and teaches students the wrong life values. It’s also risky because colleges will usually pick up on this.
It’s important to clarify that getting support with a passion project is not inauthentic. Identifying a project that you deeply care about is hard. Launching it into the real world is even harder. Students pursuing serious, long term passion projects benefit from coaching in the same way a teen athlete or musician does.
Here’s a breakdown for families and educators of what I believe are the do’s and don’ts when it comes to seeking out a good program or consultant supporting teen passion projects:
This cover article is getting a lot of readership for New York Magazine and will inevitably boost Command Education’s sales just as he admits a previous (disparaging) WSJ article helped them. As they say, any press is good press. I fear that the only victim might be the kids. Don’t let this article obscure the truth that passion projects are wonderful endeavors. Instead we should steer students to pursue them in and out of school in a productive and healthy way.