If there is a time of year when Hawaii’s ambitious high school seniors are especially mindful of the need to stand out, this is it.
Many have submitted or are finishing college applications, knowing that the competition to get into top schools is stiff. Some elite institutions accept less than 10 percent of their applicants.
The pressures on these high-aiming youth to stand out, especially if they come from expensive prep-school backgrounds, have fostered expectations that can be unrealistic and unhealthy, according to some youth mentors, academic counselors and others.
“It’s just an impossible task,” said Dana Leman, an executive with the Iowa-based nonprofit RandomKid, which works with youth on charity projects. “The bar is set higher and higher.”
In such an environment, some students can stretch the truth, experts say, though reliable data on resume padding is hard to come by.
Added Jeffrey Leiken, a California- based mentor for teens and young adults, “It is commonplace for kids to be encouraged by professionals to do whatever they can to glorify themselves.”
“There’s no question that things that get written in applications are at the very least considerably embellished,” Leiken said.
An inspiring story
Brittany Amano was one of the high-aimers.
While in high school, she told people she had her sights set on the Ivy League schools, among the most selective colleges in the country.
By the time she was a junior at ‘Iolani School, where she was attending on a full scholarship, Amano already stood out. She was a rising star in Hawaii’s charitable service sector. She had accumulated numerous state and national honors, including twice winning the Prudential Spirit of Community Award as one of Hawaii’s top youth volunteers. ‘Iolani nominated her the second time.
She was featured in print, television and online media stories, traveled frequently to the mainland for conferences and had a flair for public speaking, once giving a talk at the White House. “She could speak circles around you,” a former adviser said.
Amano also came with an inspiring personal story. By her own account, she was raised by a single mother who dropped out of high school, didn’t know her father as a child, spent time in foster homes, witnessed her grandmother become homeless, and relied on the local food bank for occasional meals.
Those experiences inspired her to help others. She told people she formed her first nonprofit organization, Hawaii’s Future Isn’t Hungry, when she was 12.
By age 16, according to one of her 2014 online award biographies at the time, the ‘Iolani junior had raised more than $600,000 and collected roughly 98,000 pounds of food through her nonprofit. Another bio said she had recruited more than 400 youth volunteers in 26 states.
But during the latter half of Amano’s junior year, questions began to surface about the charitable accomplishments she was touting online.
Someone within the school community alerted ‘Iolani to the possibility that some of those achievements were untrue or exaggerated, according to Tim Cottrell, the institution’s head of school. “We suspected dishonesty in claims she was making,” Cottrell told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Because the claims were unrelated to school activities, ‘Iolani did not investigate them directly but asked Amano for verification — something she was unable to provide, he said.
As ‘Iolani was continuing to discuss the matter with Amano, the questions became moot. After her junior year, Amano transferred to a public school in 2014. “She chose to end (the conversation) by not returning,” Cottrell said.
In forgoing her final year at ‘Iolani, which she had described as her “dream school” just the year before in a TEDx Talk, Amano walked away from a scholarship worth about $20,000 annually. She attended two public high schools, Kalani and Kaimuki, as a senior.
Amano, now 19 and a freshman at Duke University, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about her ‘Iolani departure, her Hawaii’s Future fund-raising activities and other related issues.
“Thirst for the elite”
The pressures on high school students to stand out have increased as competition to get into top universities has intensified and people have embraced the mistaken notion that only graduates of “good” colleges can get the best jobs, according to Jeannie Burlowski, Minnesota author of a new book, “Launch: How to Get Your Kids Through College Debt-Free and Into Jobs They Love Afterward.”
Those pressures are “what feeds this thirst for the elite” and the temptation to pad one’s resume, Burlowski said. Yet she likes to reassure people that “students are able to accomplish extraordinary things with ordinary educations.”
Calvin Ishii, a certified educational consultant in Honolulu, said students used to aim for an A average, high Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and perhaps an extracurricular activity to position themselves to apply to top colleges.
But not even 4.4 grade point averages and perfect SAT marks are now considered enough, he said. “You need something really beyond that, something that is extraordinary, that is different,” Ishii said.
Still, he said, Hawaii students don’t feel the same level of pressure as their peers in some big mainland cities. “People here tend to be a little bit more laid back,” Ishii said, though he acknowledged seeing some students list so many extracurricular activities on their applications that “it seems like they don’t sleep.”
While the application deadlines for some colleges already have passed, many schools, including the University of Hawaii, are accepting packets over the next few months.
How well a student does in high school still tends to drive admission decisions. A recent study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that admission officers cited grades, strength of curriculum and test scores as top factors for first-time freshmen. Extracurricular activities, the student essay and teacher recommendations are among the secondary factors, according to the study.
David Hawkins, the association’s executive director for educational content and policy, said in an email that resume padding is “certainly a topic with which both high school counselors and college admission officers are familiar.” But colleges tend to look more for quality over quantity, he said.
“For the most part, I believe admission officers would tell you that an application with a list of activities a mile wide and an inch deep would not fare as well as one that conveyed a commitment to a smaller number of purposeful activities in which the student is genuinely engaged,” Hawkins wrote.
Raising red flags
The story of a Hawaii girl from an impoverished household forming a nonprofit organization, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and motivating hundreds of volunteers to join her charitable cause has proven a winner time and again for Amano. She has repeated the story in media interviews, online bios and public speaking engagements.
But the story raises red flags.
Amano has described herself as president and CEO of two nonprofit organizations: Hawaii’s Future Isn’t Hungry, which she now refers to as The Future Isn’t Hungry, and Teens Stopping Domestic Violence. On her LinkedIn account, she notes that the former has branches in all 50 states.
Yet neither entity has ever been registered with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and the attorney general’s office — the two agencies that regulate nonprofits operating and soliciting donations in Hawaii, according to state records. Neither is listed with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501c3 organization — a designation required to collect tax-deductible donations, a standard feature of a charitable entity.
In her 2013 TEDx Talk, Amano told the audience that she formed Hawaii’s Future Isn’t Hungry in 2010 through RandomKid, the Iowa-based organization that has a 501c3 arm for assisting youth engaged in charitable fund-raising.
Funds raised through RandomKid-affiliated projects typically are routed to the Iowa organization, which provides oversight to ensure the money is spent only for charitable or education purposes, according to RandomKid’s Leman.
Amano told the TEDx audience that during Hawaii Future’s first two years and 10 months of operation, she raised $513,000 — well above the $10,000 goal she initially set. Yet Leman told the Star-Advertiser in November that her records showed only about $2,400 from Amano’s project had been deposited with RandomKid to date.
Though Leman applauded Amano as a “do-gooder” with a strong desire to help others, the RandomKid executive expressed skepticism that a high school student could raise that much money in less than three years – barring extraordinary circumstances. “At first blush, I find it difficult to believe that she raised $500,000,” Leman said.
Among the Star-Advertiser questions Amano did not respond to were how she raised so much money in that time frame, whether she had documentation for the donations, and what became of the funds.
If money raised through a RandomKid-affiliated project did not come to RandomKid, it could be donated directly to other 501c3 entities, according to Leman.
Amano has donated money to Hawaii Foodbank, the nonprofit her family relied on in the past. The amounts do not come close to approaching what she reported raising through Hawaii’s Future. Amano gave the food bank $5,000 in 2014 and $500 in 2015, according to Polly Kauahi, the organization’s director of development. No other monetary donations from her are recorded, Kauahi told the Star-Advertiser in December.
The food bank also has no record of any large food donation from Amano, according to Kauahi. It’s unclear how the teen distributed the nearly 100,000 pounds of food she reported collecting by 2014.
Kauahi lauded Amano for what she has given to the food bank, especially considering her age. “You just don’t see someone who is that motivated to help feed Hawaii’s hungry,” Kauahi said, noting that Amano’s $5,500 accounted for a minimum of 20,000 meals.
Despite the circumstances under which Amano left ‘Iolani, her stock has continued to rise.
A year after leaving the private school, Amano’s project to feed the hungry was selected a national winner in the Jefferson Foundation Awards’ LEAD360 program, which assists youth in activating their public service proposals nationally. Her project was one of three picked in 2015 in an online vote, and it resulted in the distribution that year of more than 308,000 bags of food worth $4.6 million, according to the Jefferson organization.
Amano also provided those numbers to the Star-Advertiser. With one or two minor exceptions, the newspaper’s questions about the Jefferson award were the only ones she would answer.
In another boost to her resume, Amano was accepted in 2015 for post-secondary courses at Phillips Academy, a well-known New England boarding school. And last semester she enrolled at Duke, where she is on a scholarship for first-generation college students, according to Duke’s school newspaper. One of her goals, she has said, is to return to Hawaii to run for public office.
The Star-Advertiser spoke to about a dozen former teachers, counselors and others who knew Amano, but most, including her mother, were unwilling to speak on the record.
Even as questions have emerged about Amano’s back story, her case illustrates that many award organizations accept such stories without much vetting, according to nonprofits contacted by the newspaper.
The Jefferson Foundation, for instance, still has this line from Amano’s bio on its website: “Starting at age 14, Brittany worked multiple jobs over 50 hours a week just to put food on her own table.” That equates to working an average of seven-plus hours every day of the week — while a student. Hawaii’s child labor law prohibits a person that young working that many hours.
A Jefferson spokeswoman said the LEAD360 contest focuses on the project, not the person, and that the bios are provided by the participants.
Leman of RandomKid suspects Amano in some ways became a victim of a system that expects too much of young people. “She probably got caught up in the winning of funds and winning of prestige,” Leman said.
A long list of achievements
Among the honors Brittany Amano has received:
• Jefferson Awards Foundation LEAD360 hunger project winner
• Prudential Spirit of Community Award
• Presidential Volunteer Service Award
• Emerging Young Leader Award
• International Caring Award finalist
• Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award
• Washington Duke scholar
• Three Dot Dash global teen leader
• Pacific Business News’ 40 under 40
Among charitable accomplishments she has touted:
• Formed nonprofit organization Hawaii’s Future Isn’t Hungry at age 12
• Raised $513,000 in first two years, 10 months of operation
• By end of junior year, recruited 400-plus youth volunteers in 26 states
• By 2014, collected nearly 100,000 pounds of food
Source: Online bios of Amano, media stories on her, Amano’s LinkedIn profile
What they look for
The list shows the most important factors that colleges consider when admitting first-time freshmen. The number refers to the percentage of institutions that believe such factors have “considerable importance” compared with moderate, limited or no importance.
Grades in college prep courses: 79.2
Grades in all courses: 60.3
Strength of curriculum: 60.2
Admission test scores (SAT, ACT): 55.7
Essay or writing sample: 22.1
Counselor recommendation: 17.3
Student’s demonstrated interest: 16.9
Teacher recommendation: 15.2
Class rank: 14.0
Subject test scores (AP, IB): 7.0
Extracurricular activities: 5.6
SAT II scores: 5.3
State graduation exam scores: 3.5
Source: 2014 admission trends survey, National Association for College Admission Counseling
Tough to gain admission
Here were the 25 most selective colleges for the fall 2015 entering class, including acceptance rates:
Alice Lloyd College: 5%
Stanford University: 5%
Columbia University: 6%
Harvard University: 6%
Juilliard School: 6%
Princeton University: 7%
Yale University: 7%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 8%
University of Chicago: 8%
Brown University: 9%
California Institute of Technology: 9%
U.S. Naval Academy: 9%
Pomona College: 10%
U.S. Military Academy: 10%
University of Pennsylvania: %10
Claremont McKenna College: 11%
Dartmouth College: 11%
College of the Ozarks: 12%
Duke University: 12%
Swarthmore College: 12%
Vanderbilt University: 12%
Cooper Union: 13%
Harvey Mudd College: 13%
Johns Hopkins University: 13%
Northwestern University: 13%
Source: U.S. News & World Report survey