The College Conversation: Sketchy-looking letters in the mail

Daily Pilot

Those glossy brochures you get in the mail declaring your child's prestigious nomination to a nationally acclaimed leadership conference are as shady as the letter you get announcing you've won a Hawaiian cruise, even though you never entered the contest.

Last week, a student in the Class of 2011 brought me a 2-foot stack of envelopes she received in the mail during the spring semester.

"What do I do with these?" she asked.

Pennsylvania Avenue sent her "in honor of your academic achievement, leadership, ability and dedication to the profession of law," an invitation to the National Youth Leadership Forum.

"Who said I wanted to be a lawyer?" she asked.

The same address sent her an invitation to the National Leadership Summit, Ambassadors Abroad, and a catalog listing 14 other "special" programs. After reviewing the registration forms, we learned the costs of these programs ranged in price from $1,500 to more than $5,000 for the programs abroad.

"It says I was selected. Someone nominated me and I won."

It pained me to tell her that one of two things happened: She checked the box on the PSAT or SAT requesting materials from colleges (and any other organization that deals with college-bound students) or a teacher with good intentions nominated her for one of these programs after receiving a packet in the mail requesting her participation in nominating students for the honor.

I must admit that 10 years ago, as an English teacher, I fell for it, nominating my favorite students for a program in Washington, D.C., that would provide significant leadership opportunities.

The bold print on the envelopes will tempt you with statements like: "Do you want to change the world…Serve your community…Join young leaders from around the world…be more competitive for college admission?"

And the Congressional Student Leadership Conference, the National Honors Convocation, the Presidential Youth Leadership Conference, and the National You are the Best at Everything Symposium might sound really prestigious. But, are these experiences really valuable when applying to college?

The No. 1 rule when it comes to items that arrive in the mail is to toss anything with a hefty price tag, unless it is an experience you feel your child simply cannot live without.

Ask yourself this question, "Can my child be exposed to a similar experience and learn comparable skills in a more authentic and cost-free way?"

The bottom line is that you don't need to spend a lot of money on a crafted summer "program" to pad your child's résumé — unless you really can't find a similar local experience. Maybe spending the summer at a college campus on the East Coast will help your child feel more comfortable considering out-of-state college options. And, right now, he is scared to death of leaving California for higher education.

Or maybe studying engineering in a competitive program for high school students will help him decide whether that field will be the major he declares on college applications.

What is most important is that your child is continuing to illustrate his love of learning, initiative and motivation outside of the classroom.

As one of my colleagues so eloquently put it, "Just don't sit around waiting for the grass to grow … unless, of course, your career objective is to be a botanist."

While I understand summer jobs are hard to come by for teenagers these days, there are plenty of non-profit organizations that will gladly accept high school volunteers' hands this summer.

Your child doesn't need to travel to exotic Spain to immerse herself in Spanish.

Locate a volunteer organization that caters to Spanish speakers — she'll learn plenty there.

By illustrating responsibility, initiative, and maturity, leadership opportunities will be thrown her way.

And, it won't cost $1,500 to "unlock your leadership potential," as the glossy brochures promise.

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