Do colleges appreciate solitary activities?

Any discussion of the potential admissions value of a high school activity usually involves some combination of accolades, impact, and helping others. Your captainship of the cheerleading squad, published articles for the school paper, volunteer hours with Habitat for Humanity—they all involve contributing to a team, a project, a cause, or some other benefactor.

But what if an activity you really enjoy is something you do just for yourself, one that doesn’t improve, impact, or even involve anyone else?

What if you love to write poetry but don’t have any desire to publish or share it?

What if you teach yourself to play songs on the piano but you get stage fright even imagining performing?

What if you like to draw, or cook your own dinner a few nights a week, or make old-school scrapbooks to preserve your own memories, but choose to reserve those hobbies just for your own enjoyment?

Students frequently ask our Collegewise counselors some version of these questions. They have an activity, interest, or hobby they enjoy, one in which they aren’t trying to master or win or solve anything. It’s something they do just for themselves. And they wonder if colleges will see any value in that time.

First, it’s important to remember that not everything in your life should be about getting into college. If you work hard, get good grades, and you really enjoy playing 30 minutes of video games every night before you go to sleep, I can’t think of a college that would begrudge that fun. It’s important to have balance in your life. And part of that means doing things that aren’t measured, evaluated, or otherwise judged against the metrics of getting into college.

Also, interests—even those that aren’t typical activities—make you interesting. Would you enjoy a first date with someone who talked only about their GPA, test scores, and number of community service hours they’ve completed? Probably not. And a dorm full of 18-22 year olds with their own interests, hobbies, and ideas is a lot more interesting than one where every resident is a resume-padding robot.

But if you just can’t resist evaluating even your off-time, here are a few questions to ask yourself about that thing you do that’s just for you.

Is it taking time away from work you should be doing?
“Do no harm” is a good rule of thumb for just about anything that you do. If you’ve got a record in and out of the classroom that you’re proud of, there’s no harm in allowing yourself the frivolous novel from your favorite author even if that book would never make its way into your English class. On the other hand, those nighttime video game sessions aren’t so harmless if they’re getting in the way of completing your assignments or studying as much as you should. Balance works both ways.

Is this time paying you back in some way?
What do you get from the way you’re spending this time? Do you enjoy it? Does it relax you? Does it break up the monotony of the day, make you feel rewarded for other work well done, or otherwise do something that benefits you? Einstein used to play the violin alone when he needed to work through a difficult problem. Whether this time helps you relax or conquer physics, if it gives something back without taking too much, that’s probably a good trade-off.

Do you exert physical, mental, or emotional effort during this time?
You don’t have to be on the cross country team to benefit from running. Watching and learning from guitar tutorials on YouTube is an exercise in curiosity even if you don’t play in public. And those freehand drawings you care so much about getting right are worth something to you even if those sketches stay tucked away in your notebook.

Is there a by-product of this time?
Maybe this solitary poetry pursuit has made you excited to attend poetry readings in college. Maybe those solo runs led to your interest in learning more about sports medicine. And maybe you wouldn’t mind sharing some of those delectable dishes you’ve learned to cook when you live with college roommates. Sometimes that thing you do just for yourself leads to other interesting and even not-so-solitary pursuits. Even the most involved passions had to start somewhere. If that seemingly insignificant thing you’re doing now is also leading you to new discoveries, connections, or interests, you just might be on your way to something bigger.

And if you’re just not comfortable participating in traditional activities because you’re on the shy side or you just need a little more confidence to engage at that level, see this past post, “Five college planning tips for introverts.”