Purported recognition

On Friday, my business partner Arun Ponnusamy forwarded all of our counselors a spam email he received from the National Society of High School Scholars. This was the entirety of Arun’s message (if you sense his contempt, it’s for the company sending the email, not for the families who are asking the question):

“At least once a year, a parent will reach out to me about a letter their kid received in the mail about being selected for a very prestigious honor society that just happens to cost a chunk of change. ‘Is it legit?’ No, it’s not. It’s a marketing database under the guise of some academic entity. Don’t let your students join NSHSS. And please don’t ever let them put it on their apps either.”

Considering that in his life before Collegewise, Arun read applications at the University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA, and that he’s now helped hundreds of students through the college admissions process as a counselor, applicants would be smart to follow his advice.

And here’s a collection of my past posts cautioning families against paying for purported recognition.

Broad recognition vs. broad impact

One way to stand out in college admissions is to achieve broad recognition. The student who played violin at Carnegie Hall has achieved broader recognition for his musical abilities than the first chair in the school orchestra has. A national champion debater has broader recognition than the student who won the county competition does. “All- American” is broader recognition than “All-League.” Depending on how good you are at your chosen activity, your recognition may grow from school, to city, to county, to state, to country, and in rare cases (like teenage Olympic medalists), the world.

Effective? Yes. But broad recognition is also one of the most difficult to achieve.

A different and potentially easier path? Broad impact.

What if you organized a small cadre of musicians from the orchestra that eventually played at over 30 community events last year?

What if you started a blog with tales and tips for other speech and debate competitors, and grew it to a readership of 2,000 subscribers?

What if you offered pitching clinics on the weekends for kids, and later had a roster of 15 young hurlers who regularly show up to learn their craft from you?

Naysayers will tell you that being an All-American is more impressive than writing a blog. But we’re not all going to be state, national, or world champions. And that’s OK. Impact takes many forms. If you don’t exactly compete at the highest levels and you’d like to make your chosen activity stand out more, take what you already enjoy doing, then find a way to share it with people who will appreciate it as participants, viewers, listeners, readers, benefactors, etc.

Broad impact is available to anyone willing to create it.

Self-starters

There’s one type of person that groups, organizations, businesses, and yes, colleges can’t ever get enough of: self-starters.

There are tasks to get done, new things to try, problems to fix, and improvements to be made. Everyone else is missing them, otherwise they’d be happening now. What a great opportunity.

No audition, application, nomination, election, or admission necessary. All you need is a willingness to step up and (self) start.

Rest easy, and work hard

One of the pieces of college planning advice I feel most strongly about is one many people just don’t believe—get a job. Plenty of high school kids get part-time jobs, but too many families think the only way a job could possibly impress a college is if it’s a high-profile internship, a start-up later sold for big bucks, a research project with a professor that led to the cure for athlete’s foot, etc.

If you’re able to secure something like that (without your parents doing it for you), more power to you. But I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you there is just something inherently likeable and endearing about a teenager who works a regular job washing dishes, manning the register, refereeing youth soccer games, etc. It’s something we’ve heard from every one of our counselors who worked in admissions, including those who came to us from highly selective colleges.

Unlike so many parts of the college admissions process, regular part-time jobs are still pure. An overzealous parent can’t get a kid a job scooping ice cream. A high-priced tutor can’t be paid to get a student promoted at a fast-food restaurant. A private counselor with a propensity to do too much can’t hijack a student’s job interview like they can a college essay.

If your interest is piqued, here are a few relevant past posts on this topic:

If you’ve already planned a fulfilling and relaxing summer you’re excited about, no need to turn those plans upside down just to take my advice. But if you’re still searching for summer plans, or if you’ve considered getting a part-time job but are worried you’d be put at a college admissions disadvantage for waiting tables over attending Harvard Summer School, rest easy. And work hard.

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.”

What are you doing this summer?

One of the many symptoms of the college admissions frenzy is the extension of classes, activities, and other seemingly productive expenditures of student time and energy into the summer months. While the intensity may be misguided, the spirit is not. Motivated, curious, interesting students don’t want to spend their summer sitting on the couch every day. That’s why so many colleges ask students to describe how they spent their summers. They can learn a lot by how you choose to spend your time when you’re not on the clock.

But just about every college in the country—including the most selective—would also encourage you to enjoy some downtime this summer. Sleep in, go outside, see your friends, and do lots of other things that have absolutely nothing to do with getting into college. Even professional athletes have an off-season. And teenagers, especially those who work hard in challenging classes and demanding activities during the school year, need time off to rest and recharge.

If you’d like some suggestions on how to plan a summer that will not only be enjoyable and productive, but also allow you to be a teenager rather than a resume-building machine, here are two Collegewise resources I share annually.

First, here’s my past post, 50 Ways to Spend your Summer.

And here is the far more detailed Collegewise Summer Planning Guide.

I hope you use them, and more importantly, I hope you share them with fellow students, parents, and counselors.

Make things happen

Susan Cain’s recent New York Times piece calls attention to “the glorification of leadership skills, especially in college admissions,” something that leaves many kids “jockeying for leadership positions as résumé padders.”

She proposes at the end of the article:

“What if we said to college applicants that the qualities we’re looking for are not leadership skills, but excellence, passion and a desire to contribute beyond the self? This framework would encompass exceptional team captains and class presidents. But it wouldn’t make leadership the be-all and end-all…What if we said to our would-be leaders, ‘Take this role only if you care desperately about the issue at hand’?”

But here’s some news that may surprise some people—what Cain describes is, in fact, exactly what colleges are looking for.

Maybe colleges don’t always make it clear. Maybe the word “leadership” is too general, especially for 17-year-olds, to encapsulate all the various ways a person can lead, including doing so without running for an office or even telling other people what to do. Or maybe this “jockeying for leadership positions” is yet another piece of the college admissions process that is so deeply entrenched that families can’t bear to change their thinking, no matter what the counselors or the colleges say.

I tackled this topic recently, but it bears repeating: colleges are not impressed by leadership positions alone. What they’re impressed with is excellence, passion, and the desire to contribute beyond one’s self that Cain envisions. Leadership positions are not the only opportunity to demonstrate those traits.

There’s nothing wrong with leadership positions. But the mark of a leader is not the fact that she was named to a leadership position—it’s what she manages to accomplish while holding that position. And as a passionate, engaged, hard-working follower, you can probably accomplish just as much as, if not more than, the person who lists the title on their resume.

If you’re more comfortable as a follower than a leader, please don’t try to change yourself just to fit what you think colleges appreciate. Instead of trying to be something you don’t want to be, spend more time making things happen for activities, groups, people, and causes that you care about.

Your style of play

I got a lot of nice feedback—from students, and from parents about their students—in response to my post about playing the game right. Having a deep passion for whatever you do, sports related or not, makes you a happier, more interesting, and more successful person.

Soccer player Tobin Heath is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a two-time Women’s World Cup medalist, and the 2016 Player of the Year for the United States Women’s National Team. But what struck me most in this recent article was her description of what originally drew her to the game, and what still influences her style of play.

“’I grew up loving Brazilian soccer,’ Heath said. ‘What made me think soccer was cool was these guys making soccer look like fun and easy, and they would just destroy people. It was an art. I loved that. And that’s the way I learned the game and mimicked a style. It’s just so beautiful.’”

What’s influencing your style of play, whatever and wherever you decide to play it?

Play the game right

Jim, my friend from college who, as I shared here, died suddenly last fall, had spent years coaching his sons’ Little League baseball teams. As the new season opened in their hometown recently, the league honored Jim with an unveiling of jerseys bearing his initials, the welcoming of his younger brother, Mark, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and a reminder to the league’s players to do as Jim always coached them to do—to play the game right.

Jim wanted to win as much as any coach, but that’s not why he spent so much of his free time guiding Little Leaguers. He loved instilling in his players his love and respect for the game. You never saw one of Jim’s players lollygag on or off the field—they ran with purpose. No player ever showed up with a uniform shirt untucked or a hat worn askew. And it was Jim who invented the “Right Field Hero” award, regularly presented to his right fielder who would sprint from his outfield post to back-up every throw to first base, a practice that took discipline for a player to do consistently, but was sure to save at least one errant throw per game.

Jim’s players had fun playing and competing. But even more importantly, they were proud of the way they honored the game. Baseball comes with its share of hard knocks—strike outs, errors, missed signals—even the best-coached teams have their off days. But the players Jim coached could always hold their heads high. Even on those rare occasions when they didn’t play the game well, they always played it right.

You don’t have to be an athlete to play your game right. Some of the best college essays I ever brainstormed with students came from those who honored and respected the activities they participated in. The ocean lifeguard who talked about how difficult but important it was to keep a watchful eye for hours at a time because rip currents don’t announce themselves ahead of time. The computer programmer who swore there was such a thing as beautiful code if you knew what to look for. The Eagle Scout who took guff from his friends for always carrying a first aid kit, but who’d been called upon to use it on more than one occasion. It wasn’t about winning, garnering accolades, or cementing a college admissions advantage. Each of these students took pride in honoring the craft they’d chosen to commit themselves to.

Colleges know that the teen artist, musician, writer, journalist, budding mathematician, day care volunteer, emergency medical technician, placekicker, mechanic, etc. who plays their respective game right, and who takes pride in honoring their craft, has the capacity for that instinct even if it redirects to a different game in college. They’re the ones who will get up early for a class in their chosen major or go the extra mile for the club they’re helping to build. They’ll improve the refereeing for intramural sports programs and lobby for funds to repaint the dorm walls. They’ll visit professors’ office hours and make regular appointments with their academic advisors. Playing the game right makes you, the game, and everyone else who’s playing better.

However you’re choosing to spend your time, whatever game you’re investing your energy into playing, remember how much value there is to be found when you bring your heart to it. Follow the example Coach Jim taught his players and show your pride by playing the game right.

Where do leaders come from?

Is it necessary to hold a club office, or found an organization, or otherwise do something worthy of a leadership title to impress colleges? No. Not even close. There are countless roles on college campuses that require students from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives to fill and flourish in them. Your particular skills can come from formal leadership positions, but they could also come from volunteering, playing the tuba, holding a part-time job, or virtually anything else that you cared enough about to commit to it.

But while the formal positions and titles aren’t prerequisites for college, the behavior and impact of real leadership is always appealing. And thankfully, there are plenty of ways to lead without running for office or telling people what to do.

If you’d like some more perspective on just exactly what leadership is, how it’s viewed by colleges, and why those experiences are important, I hope you’ll check out these two reads.

First, a past post of mine, including the articles that are referenced and linked within the post. And this piece, Take Me To Your Leaders: What College Admission Deans Are Looking For, by Brennan Bernard, a high school counselor and education writer. Bernard asked a number of college admissions officers to share their thoughts on what it means to lead. Don’t expect a roadmap with a list of activities and roles that will satisfy the definition, because as you’ll see, their answers vary.

Here’s an example:

“Leadership is deep engagement in an area of interest—not necessarily an officer in an organization. Rather than the president of the student government, I love the student who has been the chair of the dance cleanup committee for a few years. Who wants that job? And yet, she consistently gets a few students who will stay late after the dance to clean up the detritus left by classmates. That, to me, is leadership. No accolades but lots of commitment and follow through.”

Deb Shaver, Director of Admission, Smith College

Yep, that’s good leadership.

I hope the differences in their answers will relieve, not frustrate students. There are lots of ways to lead. Almost certainly, one of them will be a natural fit for you, something that you enjoy and are good at. If you commit your time to that kind of endeavor, you’ll learn a lot, you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll impress colleges.

It turns out that leaders can come from everywhere.