The Overscheduled Student

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Women far outnumber men at Dickinson College, where this class studies French

Six months ago the town of Wayzata, Minnesota (pop. 4000 and the "jewel of Lake Minnetonka"), made it onto the map when it vowed to take back the night — or, rather, to take back afternoons and vacation days from the ever-tightening grip of extracurricular activities. A group of Wayzata parents calling themselves "Family Life 1st" began asking Judo instructors, cello teachers and their ilk to cut back on practices and shift their schedules so as not to conflict with family meals and vacations. At a time when the hot Christmas gift for the under-10 set is a candy-colored personal digital assistant, it was a well-understood and much-applauded move.

And none other than Harvard University appears to be following suit — sort of. Last week Harvard posted a paper on the admissions section of its website entitled "Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation." It is less a research study than a doomsday screed. The paper recounts horror story after horror story of stressed-out kids being foisted with consultants to get into elite grammar schools "with lower admission rates than Harvard" and being booked themselves solid with exotic hobbies and activities in order to wow admissions officers. The paper goes on to forecast a generation of thirty- and forthysomethings "who are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp who...say they missed their youth entirely."

The not-so-relaxing remedies

This scary scenario thus painted, the paper also offers a way out, offering alternatives to life in the boot-camp trenches, including spending more "down-time" in early childhood, eschewing educational vacations for "old-fashioned summer jobs," and not choosing a college "simply based on brand name or reputation." But the surest road to relaxation, it says, is to take a year off before college. It may also be a good path to admission, and will surely be interpreted that way by educators, parents and kids who are doubtless already reading between the document's lines to divine parcels of admissions wisdom. The paper advises that "time away almost never makes one a less desirable candidate." Perhaps paradoxically, it then lists a panoply of hectic-sounding pursuits to which current Harvard students devoted this down year — to be precise, 22 activities (including steel drumming, kibbutz life and mineralogical research) and travel to 26 countries (from Belize to Zimbabwe).

Urging kids to take a breather appears to be both welcome and wise, but surely telling kids to plan their time off to this extent could be more than a little counterproductive. After all, could there would be nothing worse than a generation of kids who pad their resumes with "just the right amount" of down time? And, I'd imagine, nothing worse for admission officers than essay after essay about a relaxing and enlightening year off spent conducting mineralogical research in Zimbabwe.