If you’re like me, you remember high school as a time when you were slightly involved in a few activities such as ladling soup at a shelter or swimming for the YMCA. Your week was busy, but it pales in comparison to the extreme involvement of your current high school (or middle school) student. You now look with dismay at your daughter’s daily schedule, where she has indicated in color-coded notation that dinner is from 5:00PM until 5:12PM, and homework begins at 10:03PM after she returns from the environmental club meeting and travel team practice. The following morning begins at 5:15AM so that your harried student can squeeze in an hour of SAT tutoring before school. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but this seems like a recipe for disaster, or at the very least, an utterly exhausted adolescent.

Although there are certainly many factors at work in shaping the current landscape of our student’s lives, a piece of what drives us to push ourselves to the brink is our perception of how extracurricular activities impact the college admissions process. A recent NPR article featured commentator John U. Bacon puzzling over why modern American families spend so much time focusing on structured athletic programs. And it’s not just sports. “Well-rounded students get into college!” we hear from a neighbor and then repeat to a colleague. “If he can’t check off the ‘volunteer’ box on the application, he’s already behind,” says a well-meaning school counselor to a 10th grade parent. This rhetoric is circulated and imbibed, until we all believe it.

But what if we’re not exactly on the right track when it comes to college admissions and how our students should be spending their time? What makes a student a compelling college candidate (and human being!) is not his or her resume of activities, no matter how impressive. Cal Newport, author of How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students, points to a trait he calls “interestingness” to describe a student who has spent time pondering, exploring, and letting themselves stare at the passing clouds. Our kids’ lives are so filled to the brim with high-caliber summer programs, service projects, and out-of-state tournaments that they have little time to cultivate their own interests, read a book about flying squirrels, collect retro matchboxes, or practice origami. In an interview with The Daily Beast, even Stanford’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, William Fitzsimmons, says that maybe it’s reasonable for students to do nothing. “‘Hanging out and reading is just fine,’ said Fitzsimmons, noting that today’s overextended students are often in need of a few weeks off. Hard as it may be to believe, Fitzsimmons added: ‘You don’t have to account for every moment of the year.’”

What if the marker of student with “interestingness” is not everything he’s done, but rather the exploration that has led him to forge his own path and begin to wrestle with questions of “Who am I?” and “Where am I headed?” Rather than bending over backwards to demonstrate their leadership prowess and volunteer accolades, students can find something that interests them (after staring at the clouds for a spell), and explore it. Any student can attain more interestingness – it’s a learned trait. I wager that nurturing our students’ God-given interests and curiosities will prime them to be young adults who celebrate their identities in Christ, as beloved children of God the Father. And if your student’s fascination with WWII tanks doesn’t seem to fit on her resume, maybe it can come in handy in her first college interview.

Newport leaves us with a rubric for learning how to cultivate interestingness and promote exploration:

  1. Do fewer structured activities.
  2. Spend more time exploring, thinking, and exposing yourself to potentially interesting things.
  3. If something catches your attention, use the abundant free time generated by rule 1 to quickly follow up.

For more thoughts about how to cultivate an environment in which our children can flourish, see Anthony Esolen’s excellent book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, a call to reclaim lost traditions of childhood.