Teen cynicism is byproduct of college application process

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Beginning sophomore year in high school, I started to notice a shift in my peers' behavior. With college applications right around the corner, many of my friends began to feverishly stockpile volunteer hours and organize fundraisers - all in the name of being admitted into a dream university and not, unfortunately, because of the altruism usually associated with helping other people.

Watching the Live 8 concert on TV earlier this month highlighted for me the negative side effects the college application process has already had on my peers. A call to youth to take a more proactive stance against global suffering and poverty, the epic event drew many teenagers. But many of them didn't seem to be aware of the important issues the concert was intended to address.

Ironically, I think this was simply because American teenagers are consumed with the process of getting into a good college, and - in turn - doing well in life. Most American teenagers want to learn and want to help, as evidenced by their enthusiastic and substantial presence at the Philadelphia edition of Live 8. But their desire to help is inhibited by the time they must devote to fattening their résumés and maintaining their immaculate transcripts.

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As a high school senior, I have witnessed the hysteria surrounding college applications. With colleges demanding higher and higher standards for each successive class of incoming freshmen, teenagers are forced to stay up until the wee hours of the morning, making flashcards for those hard-to-remember SAT vocabulary words, copying lists of formulas for their calculus class, or studying for one of their many advanced placement classes.

And when they're not doing any of those tasks, high schoolers are packing the few remaining hours of their schedules with piano lessons, speech and debate camps, or any other activity they believe to be enticing to the selection committee.

This mentality precludes many teenagers from keeping up with what is happening beyond where they live. High-schoolers I know rarely, if ever, read newspapers or news magazines, simply because they don't have the time to do so. In most cases, the only news they hear comes from a superficial, 30-minute program on one of the 24-hour news networks. They simply can't stay up to date with current events, nor can they fully engage themselves in a worthy cause.

The extent of many American teenagers' lack of knowledge was revealed, for me, at what was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the Live 8 concert. Entertainer Will Smith announced that a child dies in Africa every three seconds, and it appeared - from the looks on their faces, captured on TV - that many of the young concertgoers were shocked by this remark.

However, given the extreme magnitude of poverty in Africa - as well as the millions who have died in recent years from conflicts in Rwanda, Sudan, and the Congo - it was disappointing that so many young people were unaware of the dire circumstances of many Africans prior to the concert.

But even high-schoolers aware of such conditions seem motivated to help more because they'd like to boost their chances of getting into a top school than because they genuinely care about those in need.

After the tsunami last winter, a group of students from my school decided to organize a fundraiser for the survivors of the catastrophe. While this appeared to be a noble endeavor, they told me that they had decided to pursue this option as opposed to simply donating money to UNICEF or to the International Red Cross so that they could have one more thing to add to their résumé. I heard a similar story from a girl who volunteered at a local hospital. She was not performing the community service for the satisfaction of helping someone else, or for the desire to learn more about the medical field. She was, as she bluntly said, doing it "for college."

As the nation's youth, we must realize that we have the ability to enact change in society - and we should act on that ability, in spite of the pressure we may face from colleges to build our résumés. Whether it be raising money to combat poverty and AIDS in developing nations, or speaking out to influence the policies of our elected officials, we need to do whatever is in our power to help those who are less fortunate than us.

But students should pursue altruistic endeavors for the right reasons. Instead of mechanically raising money in an effort to catch the eye of a prestigious university's admissions board, students need to change their fundamental mind-sets. They ought to care about how their actions will affect the lives of those starving in developing countries and educate themselves on why those people are suffering.

While some may argue that a divergence from such a philosophy is a necessary evil for gaining admittance to an elite college, the moral strength and leadership skills that students will develop by making a difference in the world will be invaluable to them in the future.

During the Live 8 concert, Bono, the lead singer of U2, said, "The rock stars and hip-hop stars can't change anything, but the audience can." To truly change anything, my generation needs to start caring more about what we are doing and less about how it will affect our college applications.

Kevin Zhou is a student at Monte Vista High School in Danville, Calif.

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