Don't expect this 'award' to help you enter college

The official-looking Certificate of Selection for Award comes in a thick red envelope along with a three-page letter and supporting materials.

It says the recipient, a high school student, "was selected for the National Academy of Future Scientists and Technologists Award of Excellence for outstanding academic achievement, leadership potential and determination to serve humanity in the field of science and technology."

The accompanying letter says the recipient is invited to serve as a delegate at the "highly selective" Congress of Future Science and Technology Leaders to be held this summer in Boston.

It adds that participation in the event can "enrich your academic profile" and help make the student "a much stronger candidate for competitive college and graduate school admissions."

Is it legit? I decided to find out after my son, a freshman at a local public high school, received the packet in the mail and was clearly excited to be honored for his academic achievements.

Admission officers and college-guidance professionals say they've seen an explosion in summertime programs offering high-school students a competitive edge for getting into a top school.

"They're called pay-to-play programs," said Michael Goran, director of the Los Angeles consulting firm IvySelect. "Some have legitimate value. Many are just resume padding."

The National Academy of Future Scientists and Technologists looks impressive. It boasts past speakers, or "mentors," such as former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, inventor Dean Kamen of Segway fame and a couple of Nobel Prize winners.

The academy's website says it was founded in 2014 "on the belief that we must identify prospective talent at the earliest possible age and help these students acquire the necessary experience and skills to take them to the doorstep of these vital careers."

It says no taxpayer funding is received and that the organization "is completely self-sustaining through tuition from academic seminars and conferences."

And there's the tip-off. The cost to serve as a delegate at the Congress of Future Science and Technology Leaders and receive the academy's Award of Excellence is $985, or $1,585 with hotel accommodation. Airfare to and from Boston is extra.

Is the chance to hear presentations by famous smart people a good thing? Yes, undeniably. Is it worth nearly $1,600 for what's basically a three-day summer camp? That's for each parent to decide.

But university and college admission officers won't be particularly impressed.

"The presence of such an activity on a USC application is not going to have a significant impact on our admission committee's deliberations," said Tim Brunold, USC's dean of admission.

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Seth Allen, dean of admissions at Pomona College, said participation in extracurricular camps "plays no direct role in the college selection process." Matthew Fissinger, director of undergraduate admission at Loyola Marymount University, said these events "have insignificant impact on application for admission."

Lisa Rossi, the academy's director of public affairs, hedged a bit when I asked if congress participants have a leg up with college applications.

"It helps the student become better prepared to be a better applicant," she said. "It helps students see a bigger future and validate their passion."

Rossi acknowledged that a significant number of certificates are mailed out nationwide to attract the desired 4,500 delegates for the summer event, but she declined to give a specific number. She balked when I referred to the certificates as part of a marketing campaign.

"Marketing is a hard word," Rossi said.

She also acknowledged that even though my son's certificate said he was nominated by someone named Shree Bose, a Harvard senior and Google Global Science Fair winner who serves as the academy's academic director, that wasn't really the case.

What probably happened, Rossi said, is that my son filled out a questionnaire as part of the enrollment process for a standardized test, and stated at that time that he had at least a 3.5 grade-point average and likes math and science.

That questionnaire subsequently was made available to colleges nationwide, she said, and one of them, Washington Adventist University, is a "partner" of the academy and probably passed along my son's name as a good prospect.

Maryland's Washington Adventist University was founded in 1904 by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church as the Washington Training Institute. It then became Washington Foreign Mission Seminary, then Washington Missionary College, then Columbia Union College and received its latest name in 2009.

Rossi said the university receives no compensation for feeding students' names to the academy. No one at the school returned my call and emails.

Bose, 21, said she saw nothing misleading about being identified as the one nominating high school students for the academy's Award of Excellence, even though she has nothing to do with the selection process.

"A nomination is like extending an invitation," she told me. "It's an invitation to come."

Well, no. If that were the case, everyone in Hollywood would attend the Oscars. A nomination is recognition of a specific accomplishment.

"A lot of things like this come in the mail," said Dakotah Eddy, assistant director of admissions consulting at Malibu-based Veritas Prep. "It's hard for parents and students to tell what's of value."

Any participation in a summertime academic program is likely better than nothing, she said. But what top schools are looking for is a sustained commitment to an extracurricular activity or a nationally recognized award.

As for summer programs for high school students, those offered by universities themselves are held in much higher esteem by admission officers than privately run events, Eddy said.

For that reason, the National Academy of Future Scientists and Technologists gets an F for pitching itself to young people as some sort of high honor, like the Westinghouse science award. It's not.

It's a for-profit enterprise that exploits student information for marketing purposes, raising expectations among an especially impressionable customer base.

It's the brainchild of owner Richard Rossi — Lisa Rossi's husband — who also owns the similar National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists. He was co-founder of a company called Envision EMI, which runs nearly a dozen other student-oriented programs and was purchased by private investors in 2011.

If the academy's marketing was targeted at parents, this wouldn't be such a big deal. But to send these packets directly to kids, ostensibly for their "outstanding academic achievement," is an act of deception.

If my son wants to attend something like this, I'm cool with having that conversation. But not because he's been tricked into thinking he's the next Stephen Hawking or that he's found a way to game the college-admissions process.

Anyway, he's not interested. He says he'd rather play video games, and I'm cool with that as well.

Service to humanity will come later.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 29, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Don't expect this `award' to help you enter college" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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