The students I have been working with since 2008 are brilliant. They achieve things academically by the 8th grade that I never got to in high school. They spend weeks, even months, of their summer in Greece or Japan or Spain. They speak a second language. They don’t just join programs at school, they invent them. They volunteer (man do they volunteer). And all this while playing on a travel soccer team and competing in the Science Olympiad and winning debate tournaments.
There is an urgent driver of much of this achievement: the college application.
I can’t count the times a student or a parent has explained one of their activities in these terms. An 8th grader once told me, as I complimented her for volunteering at the community Fourth of July festival, that she was only doing it because her grade in math wasn’t very good, so she needed something on her college application to compensate. This student had yet to set foot in her high school.
Some students have shared that this urgency comes from their teachers. I’ve seen some come from parents. And plenty of it these youth place it upon themselves, as their peers all compete to position themselves for elite schools. There seems to me to be no greater animating force in the lives of the youth I work with than the strength of their college application.
So it should come as no surprise that youth decide about church activities through a college application filter. Mission trips are pursued or passed over on this criteria. Service projects are weighed in terms of service hour quotas. Even church leadership positions can be prized for their value to the application. None of these church activities are designed to promote improved college admissions, of course, but many of them can be used for that purpose.
Is that terrible? Is there a purer purpose behind the mission trip that is thwarted by the forward-looking motives of the 10th grader who signs up? Probably not. Still, I am resisting the obvious logic of surrendering to the rules of the college application in scheduling and designing church mission activities. That is a battle we simply won’t win. In fact, to fight that battle is to lose.