Executing vs. initiating

Arun said something during our webinar on highly-selective college admissions that really stuck with me. He said that the students he’s worked with who get into the most selective colleges are often those who have shown the most initiative, rather than those who showed an ability “just to execute.” That distinction applies for any student trying to get into any college (famous or not-so-famous). And it’s a pretty good characteristic to demonstrate if you want to be successful in life.

Here’s the difference.

One student learns that colleges value summer learning. So he convinces his parents to pay to send him to Harvard Summer School. He features the experience prominently in his college essays and references it during his Harvard interview.

Another student has always wanted to learn how to make pottery. The whole idea of literally getting her hands dirty appeals to her. So she takes a class at a local community college and spends her summer throwing clay. She keeps making pots in her spare time and eventually starts selling them at the local swap meet every weekend. She takes more advanced classes at a local art school and starts making pots as birthday and holiday gifts for her friends and family. She has no interest in majoring in art, but she writes a great essay about the quirky community of local potters that she’s gotten to know, and her college interviewer notes that she lit up when asked about her pottery.

There’s nothing wrong with the Harvard Summer School kid. He’s bright and motivated and likely has a great work ethic. But he’s executing—he’s following what he believes are the steps to becoming a competitive college applicant. And once that experience was over, he checked it off and moved on to the next thing.

But the potter followed her own interest to see where it took her (and it took her someplace interesting). She didn’t concern herself with whether or not it would look good to colleges. This was satisfying her curiosity, not checking items off a list.

This isn’t about art classes being better or worse in college admissions than an expensive summer program. It’s about a student’s innate ability to make things happen driven only by her own interest. What the interest is matters much less to colleges than what drives it.

Execution follows a path. Initiative charts a path.

Anyone can take initiative. It doesn’t care what your GPA or test scores are. And the best thing about initiative is that you can use it to pursue things that make you happy, which is actually what the colleges want you to be doing anyway.

If you need a little inspiration to take initiative, here are two past posts that might help.