The Push for Passion & Purpose in College Admissions

By Carolyn Richardson


College Day at Viewpoint School last May showcased the many colleges and universities students planned to attend. PHOTO COURTESY VIEWPOINT SCHOOL

Parenting your child to build an honest college resume starts earlier than you think  to help your student stand out in competitive times 

“We regret to inform you…” Those five words were enough to bring me to tears. I dashed to McDonald’s in the rain and drowned my sorrows with a Big Mac and Hi-C Orange. The rejection letter was from Rice University, the Harvard of the South. I cried long enough for the rain to stop and threw the letter away with the burger wrapping paper.

There isn’t much parents can do to prepare their kids for college decision letters, but helping your child prepare for the application process can make all the difference. With college enrollment up 31 percent since 2000 and high achievers and maxed out GPAs aplenty, admissions officers are finding new ways to wade through the ever-growing pool of applicants.

Good grades and test scores and extracurricular activities are still essentials, but colleges and universities are increasingly looking at not just what applicants have been up to during high school, but why. So how do you set your child up for success in this brave new world? Let passion lead the way – as long as it’s real.

A Spirit of Service

That means choosing community service projects students actually care about. In January, Harvard released a report in which a coalition of college admissions officers bemoaned students’ emphases on success over the common good, and their attempts to “game service.”

“Parents will come to us the summer before their child is about to apply to college [and say], ‘She’s got the sports, she’s got the music, but she hasn’t done any community service, so we’re gonna do some community service,’” says Evelyn Alexander of Topanga-based Magellan Counseling, which helps parents and students navigate the college search process.

One of Alexander’s clients, Zoe Tucker, showed interest in helping the homeless beginning at age 8. When she was old enough to volunteer, at 14, she helped at a soup kitchen, started going to shelters and eventually started her own service project donating hotel toiletries to the homeless. Her sustained focus on one area of service tells a much more compelling story than a single summer community service project. Now a senior at Santa Monica High, Tucker is all set to personalize her college application essays with a story that she can tell passionately.

“You do something because it matters to you. You don’t do something just to check the box,” says Alexander. She suggests listening to your child, as early as age 7, and helping them learn more about their interests. Eventually, the child will take the lead. “When I’m working with a real superstar, there’s always a point at which their parents stopped needing to push them,” Alexander says. “Look for what your child really cares about, rather than what you think would be impressive.”

Encouraging Exploration


Kylie and Cameron Cipolla, shown here with their parents Bonnie and Bill at Cameron’s high school graduation, pursued theater as their passion. PHOTO COURTESY THE CIPOLLA FAMILY

Bonnie Cipolla followed this model for her daughters, Kylie, 20, and Cameron, 18, who now attend New York University and Belmont University. When they were in the second and fourth grade, they expressed interest in theater. Cipolla, a former dancer and actress, kept their involvement low-key while still allowing them to follow their passion. “I never let them have an agent or ‘do the business,’” she says. Instead, she told her daughters, “If you like doing this, this is the one time in life to work on your craft and really figure out if you like the craft.” That led to more plays through Golden Performing Arts, a Canoga Park-based nonprofit that offers theater programs for ages 6-19.

The Cipolla girls are now Golden Performing Arts camp counselors and mentors to young aspiring actors. Cipolla also exposed them to soccer, Girl Scouts and band throughout middle and high school, yet theater became the passion they pursued into college.

So what happens if your child’s interests aren’t singular? In her senior year, Marcela Riddick, a graduate of The Archer School for Girls, played three varsity sports, did volunteer work, served on student council, worked in a daycare center and developed an app that measures domestic water usage through Archer’s InvenTeam. When I spoke with Marcela, she was days away from presenting her invention at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., and only a week from orientation at Colorado State University, where she’ll study veterinary medicine.

Marcela says she has a passion for all of these activities but learned from her mom, Vivian, how to find focus when necessary. She says her mother encouraged her to pursue every interest, and that helped her gain confidence. “I don’t think a child can really do too much,” Vivian says, “especially when they’re passionate about it. If you don’t allow them to do it and experience different and new things, you then hinder what their experiences are.”

Seeing a student like Marcela accomplish so much can seem daunting, but ultimately encouraging high achievers’ dedication helps them become more agile in every area of life. Rhody Davis, director of college counseling at Viewpoint School in Calabasas, says that with so many high achievers out there, unique experiences and dedication are the key to getting noticed by colleges. “What are students doing at a really high level? Students who are applying what they learn in the classroom in new and exciting ways can be really compelling on a college application,” says Davis.

And if your child’s passion falls outside your area of expertise, there are still ways you can help. “Develop core competencies such as how to write effectively, think critically and how to interact with people from different backgrounds,” Davis says. This will help prepare your child for college interviews.


Marcella Riddick and her mom, Vivian, relax in the Saban IDEAlab at The Archer School for Girls. Vivian encouraged Marcella to pursue her many passionate interests throughout high school. PHOTO BY ZEKE RUELAS

If your student’s passion seems frivolous to you, try to remain neutral. “Parent the student you have. Don’t get tied to a certain outcome,” Davis says. “You can’t really create a slam dunk applicant to Stanford, Yale or Princeton.”

Time to Apply

Besides helping your student focus on those all-important passions, there is plenty you can do to make the college application process run more smoothly once it’s time. Ruth Grubb, Palisades Charter High School college counselor, gives the following tips:

Consider many schools: Tour college campuses as early as ninth grade so that kids can find out what sort of atmosphere best suits them. Students need to think about campus size, whether the location is urban or rural, far away or close to home, and the local climate.

Check the requirements: The University of California and California State University systems, out-of-state public schools and private institutions each have their own course requirements for applicants. Educate yourself early on so that your child takes classes needed to meet the requirements for schools that interest them.

Organize your files: Consolidate all of your student’s work into one manageable file. Keep track of your child’s activities, accomplishments and leadership positions. Include community service, church involvement, important essays and personal and professional references.

Know how to apply: College App Wizard ( helps you keep track of deadlines for essays, testing and financial aid for schools you’re targeting. The Common Application ( offers college planning and financial aid guidance, and lets students apply to nearly 700 colleges with one application. The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success ( is another free online platform offering tools and streamlining the application process for 53 top colleges.

And then it’s time to let go a little. If you have supported your child’s passions, exposed them to varied experiences, given them communication and time-management skills and kept track of it all along the way, you can probably step back and let your child handle the actual submissions. Students often get tremendous satisfaction from completing the application process, and – whatever the decision – it’s one step toward the independent life they’ll one day lead.

Carolyn Richardson is a mom of three and L.A. Parent’s Assistant Editor.

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