What gets measured gets managed

Activity sections in college applications look different than they used to.

In the years before I started Collegewise in 1999, many applications simply asked students to list each activity, along with any titles or associated recognition. But that made it difficult for a college to tell how committed a student had really been to one activity over another. They could see glimpses of where the student had enjoyed success. But without asking for more information, the message most applicants received was that the more activities they could list, the better.

That changed when colleges started asking for details about a student’s actual time spent participating. They asked students to list not just the years (grades 9-12) spent, but also to estimate the number of hours per week and weeks per year. That allowed colleges to differentiate between an activity in which a student had really spent significant time participating, and those that were short-term, comparatively less important commitments.

Colleges also began to make it clear that they weren’t looking for well-rounded applicants; they were looking for well-rounded classes. A student who participated in a variety of activities was less appealing than one who focused on a few substantial commitments. Colleges even came up with a term to describe the opposite of the well-rounded but unfocused applicants: “angular” students.

But the measure of time is imperfect. And as is often the case, what gets measured gets managed.

Today, many students ask how many hours of community service are “enough.” They’re more likely to diligently plod through something they don’t enjoy. They hesitate to abandon an activity that’s lost its luster for fear of giving up a demonstrated continuous commitment.

More hours per week, more weeks per year, more years during high school. If that’s what colleges want, that’s what nervous college applicants will give.

The college admissions process isn’t perfect. It’s not always fair either, as is the case with most selection processes that aren’t meritocratic. Dating and hiring work the same way–there’s no infallible process that guarantees the right choice.

But the applications, and the process, are engineered to share as much information as possible, in ways that will help admissions officers make the best choices. And today’s version of the activity section is no different.

Colleges understand that students have limited hours, days, weeks, etc. spent outside of class. How do you choose to spend those hours? Have you experienced any success? Have you made an impact on the people, the organization, or the constituency? Will you leave a legacy when you’re gone, one that will be missed?

And most importantly, have you enjoyed what you’ve done? That’s arguably the most important measurement. A student who lights up when discussing an activity is one who is most likely to channel that passion and those talents into something—similar or different—once they get to college.

It’s not about how many activities you do. It’s not about how many hours you spend doing them. It’s about whether or not you have the initiative, curiosity, and work ethic to commit to things you care about. It’s about how you use your inherent talents to make an impact. And most importantly, it’s about you. Your interests are an important part of what make you interesting. That—the entire collection—is what colleges are trying to measure.

They don’t always measure it perfectly. But if you know that’s what they’re evaluating, you can make good decisions to help you manage what’s being measured.

Here’s a past post with more on how to evaluate your activities, another about impact and how to measure it, and a final one about how interests make you interesting.