Ethical College Admissions: Student Passions and College Choices

New research should have admissions counselors thinking about how they offer advice, writes Jim Jump.

August 27, 2018
 
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“Find your passion.” There is some sort of law that every college commencement address must include that advice, and it is also given to students applying to college, students in college and adults at all stages of life. But is it good advice?

Are passions found or developed? Is “passion” even the right word? How many of us have true passions as opposed to interests? And what is the psychological impact of the expectation to find your passion on those who may not have a discernible passion?

Those questions arise from a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science. The article, “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It,” was authored by Paul O’ Keefe from Yale-NUS College (the liberal arts college established in Singapore in 2011 as a partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore) and Stanford University professors Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton.

The study on finding versus developing passion is an outgrowth of Dweck’s research on mind-set published in her bestselling book of the same name. In the book Mindset, Dweck drew an intellectual distinction between individuals with a “fixed” mind-set, the view that intelligence is something that an individual possesses implicitly, and a “growth” mind-set, the attitude that intelligence is developed through experience.

Dweck argues that a growth mind-set is more conducive to success, in that individuals with a growth mind-set will be more motivated and achieving because they believe that intelligence changes over time and that failure is an opportunity for growth. Those with a fixed mind-set see intelligence as something you have or don’t have and failure or the inability to master a topic as a sign of a flaw within them.

I read Mindset when it came out and was disappointed. Like many education and self-help books, it reads like an article padded to achieve book length. I found the fundamental distinction between fixed and growth mind-sets appealing and important, but some of her examples seem stretched and Monday-morning-quarterbacked, almost suggesting that every admired athlete and political leader had a growth mind-set. What I found most frustrating was a lack of specificity on how to help someone with a fixed mind-set develop a growth mind-set.

The new article asks whether there is a similar distinction in mind-sets when it comes to interests. Are our passions internal, something we are born with and have to uncover, or are passions something we can develop through trial and error? Are the things we love and care about passions because they represent our truest selves, or can we learn to love what we do?

O’Keefe, Dweck and Walton experimented with 470 college students to try to replicate results of earlier research on intellectual mind-sets with regard to where interests come from. They concluded, to no one’s surprise, that passions aren’t found, but rather developed.

I have read enough of the new article to conclude that social science research is not one of my passions, or that I have a fixed mind-set. But I am interested in the broader implications and questions for college admission and college counseling.

The first of those questions is whether “passion” is the right word to be using. In an interview Dweck has stated that “find your passion” replaced an earlier iteration, “find your genius.” “Genius” suggests brilliance or elitism, something most of us couldn’t hope to achieve. “Passion,” she suggests, is more democratic and achievable.

There is a more subtle difference in the terminology. “Genius” is a term that suggests intellect, while “passion” suggests feelings. Does the substitution of passion for genius reflect a broader cultural change, where we often substitute “I feel” for “I think”?

But is “passion” the right word? How many teenagers have a true passion as opposed to an interest? One of my closest college counseling friends has argued for some time that high school students aren’t capable of passion and that we do harm to even use the word.

Finding the right language is important. The first draft of President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech following the attack on Pearl Harbor described Dec. 7, 1941, as “a day that will live in world history.” In subsequent drafts the line was changed to “a day that will live in infamy.” That line has lived in world history.

Can we substitute “interest” for “passion”? I don’t see them as synonyms. Having passion seems much stronger than having interest. Is there a Goldilocks word that seems just right?

My word, or rather phrase, would be “what you care about.” Caring seems much stronger and more personal than being interested, but more emotionally balanced than passionate. But maybe that questions the point of the new research. Is caring or passion necessary if the things we value and care about are not essential parts of who we are? Is passion that is grown the same as passion that comes from within?

So how does this research impact the college admission process?

From a college counseling standpoint, what are the implications for the concept of fit? The argument for fit is that the college search is first and foremost a process of self-discovery, of figuring out who you are, what you care about and what you want from your life. But if students applying to college aren’t capable developmentally of knowing themselves, or if the components of what we have come to call “passion” are not defining but developed over time, does fit matter?

I’m not ready to go there, and there are other studies that suggest that there is a strong correlation in adults between finding passion and career fit and fulfillment. The new research may reassure those who don’t “find” their passions early that all is not lost, that over the course of a career they may come to find passion for their work.

The related issue is whether the college admissions process, especially at the highly selective end of the spectrum, sends the message either subtly or explicitly that passion for something is a condition of admission. Are those of us who strive to be dispassionate discriminated against?

Things like Advanced Placement courses are designed to connote both academic rigor and intellectual passion, and extracurricular activities and essay topics are curated to provide the illusion of passion. In a time when admissions officers may read applications in as few as four minutes, can they tell the difference between genuine passion and pretend passion? And are shortcuts like those above more powerful in a compressed reading environment?

It may be time to listen to the Jethro Tull album A Passion Play, snack on some passion fruit and have a passionate argument about the role of passion in college admission.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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