The Passion of the Applicant

In the 1970s nostalgia film The Last Days of Disco, Alice, a quintessential ingénue played by a young Chloë Sevigny, frets about how to seduce the boy she likes. Her friend Charlotte recommends that, at some point during their date, she strategically refer to something as "sexy." The object of sexiness might be a movie, a song, a skyscraper -- whatever. The boy will get the hint.

Alice seizes her moment when the topic of Walt Disney movies comes up. "There's something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck," she observes. Because this is a Whit Stillman movie and not, say, a Farrelly brothers movie, her forced come-on resounds with awkwardness. If you know anything about Scrooge McDuck, you know he's not exactly sexy.

The boy knows that she's speaking nonsense. Then they dance.

* * *

As distant as this scenario may be from an acceptable application essay topic, Alice holds an important lesson for college applicants. Just as Charlotte encouraged Alice to be indiscriminately sexy -- rather than rely on her natural charm -- colleges have been pushing an unsettlingly similar notion: passion.

Colleges aren't looking for that type of passion. At least not unless an applicant promises to be the next Danielle Steele. They're looking for other types of passion. We know them as enthusiasm, energy, dedication, and engagement. For whatever reason, passion is the descriptor that has won the day. Colleges want to see it in spades: they want students to be dripping with, drenched in, and breathless with passion.

Having attended recent presentations from college reps, my students have dutifully set out to ensure that their applications convey passion. Yet, despite being strong applicants, many have been frustrated to the point of distress. When they see their lives (or at least the slices that they've written about) on paper, their essays don't always convey the idealized version of passion that colleges say they want.

An applicant might be smart. She might be thoughtful. She might be personable. She might be sincere. She might be, god forbid, a regular kid. But passionate? In reality, it's a rare duck.

Is Kobe Bryant passionate about basketball? Is Meryl Streep passionate about acting? Is your doctor passionate about medicine? Is Lloyd Blankfein passionate about running the world? Who knows. And, really, who cares? What we do know is that each of them is manifestly dedicated and incredibly competent (or, in the case of your doctor, we hope they are). Asking most people - kids included - to demonstrate passion is like asking Donald Trump to demonstrate modesty.

* * *

If they must buy into this passion thing, students must realize that there are countless versions of and applications for passion. They can be passionate about obvious things like community service, scientific research, or political causes. But they can also be passionate about academics and ideas. They can be passionate about family or politics. They can be passionate about nature or art. They can also be pretty passionate about, say, shoplifting, bullying, and social climbing. Passion alone is neither good nor bad.

Even then, having passion doesn't mean that an essay needs to be written in neon or with the caps lock on. Unless you're the head cheerleader or the lead in an opera, an essay that shouts "passion!" will be annoying. Too many students confuse passion with ebullience. (And you thought "SAT words" were useless?)

If students are truly passionate about something, they can tell their stories, and passion will be implicit. The moment they try to testify to their own passion, well, that's when the reader knows they're being put on -- Scrooge McDuck-style. (The best way to reveal passion is to let someone else do it for you.)

* * *

I suspect that the fixation on passion actually represents a lack of passion: on the part of admission offices.

Nearly every admission rep from nearly every college uses the same rhetoric when they visit high schools and give presentations. That rhetoric almost invariably involves "passion." They follow their scripts and propagate clichés. One of those cliches is tell applicants to "be themselves." In other words, "be yourself -- but only if you're passionate!" An admission rep who is truly "passionate" about his school and about kids would come up with more expansive, honest, and nuanced ways to describe the applicants whom they admire.

Of course, colleges don't want un-passionate students. They'd like to avoid pot-smoking laggards and psychopathic career strivers. But a more nuanced view of college (and life) reveals an infinite array of virtues that are at least as good -- and must exist in concert with -- passion.

Think about a few alternatives. How about intellect? How about dedication? How about morality? How about cooperation, spirituality, eloquence, awareness, worldliness, maturity, curiosity, creativity....? I could go on forever. Passion is all right. But it's hardly the ne plus ultra of virtues.

* * *

Passion also has little to do with the reality of adolescence.

As business writer Lisa Heffernan wrote recently in a New York Times piece on this same topic:

For most children, childhood isn't about passion, but rather about exploration. Our job as parents is to nurture that exploration, not put an end to it. When we create an expectation that children must find their one true interest so early in life, we cut short a process of discovery that may easily take a lifetime.

Passion is thus a red herring. Applicants should not fixate on only one virtue, and definitely not on a narrow conception thereof. The strongest applicants should remain open to exploration, not dedicated immutably to a particular idea or cause. They should consider all of their attributes - including flaws - and present them with thoughtfulness, sincerity, and appropriate degrees of enthusiasm.

Save the passion for Uncle Scrooge.