Guaranteed return?

Students, as you progress through high school and prepare to apply to college, one question worth asking about the ways you’re choosing to spend your time might be, “Does this investment have a guaranteed return?”

This class, this activity, this opportunity or experience, is it guaranteed to pay you back in some way?

Will it make you happier? Will it make you smarter? Will it help you learn, grow, and discover or enhance your talents? Will it challenge or push you? Will it help you or others? Will it earn you money, credibility, or trust? Will you learn to work with people, to manage complex projects, or to lead?

Or will the only acceptable return be an admission to a college of your choice?

Those two categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s say you’re stronger in your English and social studies classes than you are in the sciences, but you enroll in AP Chemistry anyway because you want to show colleges you’re challenging yourself. For many students, there’s a guaranteed return on that investment whether or not your dream college ends up saying yes. Challenging yourself is good as long as it doesn’t leave you burned out or miserable. And taking AP Chemistry will be like a workout for your brain. The experience will leave you smarter and more prepared for the academics in (any) college. And it might even boost your confidence, too.

But that activity you’re doing that you don’t enjoy, that you don’t really pour your heart into, that you’re really just going through the motions so you can list it on your college application, where’s the guaranteed return?

That summer program you really don’t want to attend but resolved to do because you’ve heard it will look good to colleges, is there a guaranteed return on that investment?

Those community service projects where you’re just showing up to do the bare minimum until you get your 10 or 30 or 100 hours you want to cite on your college application, is that minimal effort actually doing any good for the people, the organization, or yourself?

I’ve never met a student who actually enjoys test prep, and it certainly won’t teach you anything useful other than how to take a standardized test. But there’s a potential guaranteed return if you balance your college list beyond those schools that are reaches for you. Higher test scores will make you more admissible to many (though certainly not all) colleges.

If you don’t see a guaranteed return in what you’re doing, maybe you need a new way of spending your time, a new goal, or both.