In addition to the usual requests for SAT scores and Advanced Placement grades, the thousands of high school seniors who applied to MIT this year faced a new, more offbeat question: "Tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it."
One wrote about watching old movies and eating popcorn with mom. Another told of venturing into the woods with a handmade fishing rod.
Behind that question and a host of changes to soften the application process is Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has a rare message in the world of elite universities: High school students should enjoy themselves more, and colleges should help them do so.
"They are just doing, doing, doing, and they don't have three minutes to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it," she said. "I feel sad that they don't have the kind of freedom my generation had."
Elite schools, she said, are complicit in rearing a generation of young people staggering under unbearable pressure to be perfect at everything. Jones has begun using her position as a bully pulpit to get parents, high schools, and other universities to face up to the problem of anxious and stressed-out students who are turning into "human doings instead of human beings."
"In the business, everyone tisk-tisks about how busy students are, but we have a huge part in this," said Jones, who will mail out acceptance and rejection letters tomorrow. "We have to do our part, or we'll have no moral authority."
Jones, who is the mother of a high school student, believes that elite colleges have not acknowledged their own role in the problem. When she brought up the topic at a recent conference of admissions deans, she was met with a "deafening silence," she said.
Many of her colleagues at other top colleges, all of whom are rushing to finish admissions decisions this week, think that the blame lies elsewhere. Students and high school guidance counselors wonder whether the situation is simply beyond repair.
"I respect what Marilee is trying to do, but it's a bit quixotic in a lot of ways," said Brad MacGowan, a counselor at Newton North High School and president-elect of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling. "It's a systemic problem. The kids get these messages from everywhere."
Jones said her heart goes out to the unhappy high school students she meets who respond with blank stares when she asks "What do you dream about?" She also worries about a sharp rise in the number of high school students admitted to MIT whose grades plummet at the end of their senior year in high school, suggesting either an extreme release of pressure or a spiraling burden of extracurricular obligations.
To discourage students from overloading their lives, MIT's admissions office last year reduced the number of spaces on the form to list extracurricular activities from 10 to six. Many students still attach an extra page to catalog all their activities, but Jones didn't want them to feel as if they had to. This year, Jones removed the column designated for applicants to list the distinctions they earned in each activity.
An optional essay question asks students to describe the world they come from and then asks, "How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations?"
Inside MIT's admissions office, Jones changed the five-point evaluation system used by application readers, retraining them to give a top score not only for an international or national distinction, but also for a skill or accomplishment more difficult to quantify. Maybe a student has built a telescope for the love of learning, Jones said.
Thanks to the changes, Jones said, she believes that "we've seen a little more texture" in this year's freshman class. "We are not weeding out so fast the ones who don't have state distinctions," she said.
MIT has long prided itself on enrolling a high number of students who are the first in their family to go to college, but a few years ago, that number had dwindled to 11 percent, Jones said, perhaps because low-income students were too busy working at paying jobs to amass the kinds of awards and achievements that would get them into MIT. For this year's freshmen, it's back up to 19 percent.
Jones, 52, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, came to MIT in 1978. She thought she would get a lab job, but jumped at the chance to help the admissions office attract more female applicants. When she began, women were 17 or 19 percent of the student population; in this year's freshman class, they make up 45 percent. She became dean in 1998.
As her own daughter, now a 10th-grader, grew up, Jones said she began to see the same frightening competitive instincts in herself that she complains about in other parents, so she decided to recuse herself from the college application process, leaving it in the hands of her husband.
Jones has long been outspoken about trends that worry her. She wrote a USA Today editorial about overly aggressive parents, and she frequently speaks in high schools around the country. Two weeks ago, she got a standing ovation from parents at Choate Rosemary Hall.
An article she wrote for the MIT faculty newsletter three years ago -- which describes the millennial generation of college students as pragmatic, group-centered generalists -- still rankles students. Marcos Ojeda, a junior, complained that Jones is part of an effort to "make the whole process of going to college like hand-holding a 5-year-old."
That sort of campus controversy is peanuts compared to the uphill battle Jones faces among her colleagues at other elite schools.
"I agree that in many cases, kids feel forced into joining and joining and joining, to the extent that they are not really happy about it," said Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale. "I don't think we're being immoral about it by any stretch. We're simply saying it's a very competitive process, but, hey, students ought to be involved in things that make them happy and that they are passionate about."
Tom Parker, dean of admission at Amherst College, said he's been trying to calm parents and students for years, to no avail.
"I don't think there are structural things colleges can do," Parker said. "Every year the pressure is more rather than less."
Jones said she'll just keep raising a ruckus until other schools join the conversation about finding solutions, whether it's changing their applicants, too, or questioning early decision policies.
"Kids do a heroic job of meeting expectations, but at what price?" she asked. "There's no competition or scholarship attached to day dreaming."
Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com.