Monday morning Q&A: Community service and college admissions

Nicole asks:

“How much weight do schools place on service trips? It seems as if they are reaching an over-saturation point, that I might call ‘excessive volunteering.’ Do colleges see through most of these ‘checkbox’ items on a resume or application?”

Good question, Nicole. This is a tricky subject because a strong argument can be made that volunteering anywhere for any amount of time is a good thing regardless of any purported college admissions impact. But your specific question is about the “weight” schools place on these commitments, so let me focus on that part here.

First, you’re right. Many students are approaching community service hours like checking a box–as if it were a prerequisite for admission. Some high schools even require a minimum number of completed service hours to graduate. But most colleges don’t expect that every successful applicant will have worked at a blood drive or served soup at a homeless shelter. There’s no penalty imposed on students who choose to do other things. What colleges look for is evidence that a student has made both a commitment and an impact doing things he or she cares about. That might be volunteering at a non-profit, teaching illiterate adults to read, or training guide dogs for the blind. But it could also be working at Burger King, playing softball, taking photos for the yearbook or playing the bassoon. Impact can take many forms (more on that here).

So, a student who’s spending the bare minimum time and effort just to rack up some community service hours to list on their application could reasonably consider rededicating that time someplace else without any negative admissions ramifications. If your heart’s not in it, you’re not really giving—and the people you’re serving aren’t really getting—your best self in the name of the cause.

The one potential exception to this rule is if you’re applying to a school whose mission includes serving others. For example, some religiously affiliated colleges expect that an applicant will have dedicated time to her church and embraced the tenet of service. A student who’s chosen to spend the majority of her time in church-related activities that have included serving the less fortunate will likely have an admissions advantage over the student who spent that same time running track and taking art classes. The former student is more likely to accept an offer of admission and to thrive on campus because she’s already demonstrated that she’s aligned with the mission. When in doubt, read your college’s website carefully, as these schools won’t hide what they stand for.

And no matter where you apply, never, ever ask a college admissions officer how many community service hours are “enough.” That’s like fingernails on the chalkboard to that audience.

Thanks for your question, Nicole. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

Consistency in something vs. everything

Another solid entry from the University of Virginia’s blog, this one addressing the question of whether or not UVA looks for consistency in activities. It’s so refreshing to read that (1) they don’t value certain activities over others, (2) they don’t expect you to fill out the entire Common App activity chart, and (3) they don’t consider consistency a prerequisite.

Most colleges I can think of, with the possible exception of those offering specialized programs like performing arts, would agree with those activity guidelines.

Many students are reluctant to leave an activity behind and/or to pick up something new because they’ve heard that colleges want long-term, substantial commitments. But it’s important to understand the spirit of the law here. Like UVA, most colleges understand that teenagers change their minds. They don’t necessarily expect that an activity you first tried at age 14 will necessarily be one that you’ll stick with throughout high school.

But where consistency can become an issue is if you’re someone with a habit of picking up new activities and then putting them back down. Colleges do appreciate a student with the capacity to commit to something that matters to them long enough to make an impact. That capacity matters more than the type or quantity of the activities that benefit from it.

Consistency in something is a plus. Consistency in everything is not.

Be a fixer

Hollywood has given us several shows and movies about “fixers.” Part crisis managers, part publicists, part real-life superheroes, these fictional fixers are in high demand when politicians, celebrities, or even regular folks find themselves in a real jam (or a scandal) and need someone to swoop in and make the problem go away. Their work isn’t always exactly above board (sometimes they’re fixing crime scenes!), but they never seem to be without a high-paying gig.

But what if a group of real-life, responsible, well-intentioned fixers existed at your high school? How much good could they do? And even better, why couldn’t you put that group together?

The school’s pool is being repaired and the swim team needs a place to practice. Bring in the fixers!

The junior prom is about to be cancelled due to lack of interest. Fixers to the rescue!

A disabled student needs a ramp built to make the upstairs classrooms more accessible. The fixers are on the case.

A student who’s bullied daily could use a formidable escort to his morning class. There’s a fixer for that.

The school just pulled the funding for the yearbook and the demoralized staff is out of ideas. The fixers could swoop in and save the day.

I’m not being sarcastic here. What if you pulled together the most talented, resourceful, committed group of students you could find? Each could bring their individual strengths—writing, organization, leadership, computer skills, connections, muscle, etc.—to combine into a virtual army of high school difference-makers.

I’ve never seen it listed on a college application. What a great opportunity to make an impact at your school and to stand out to colleges.

When less is best

More activities

More commitments

More hours

More scheduling

More time, more energy, more drive, etc.

Is it actually leading to better results? Are you finding more success, more enjoyment, and more impact as a result of all this “more?”

If not, what would happen if you did less?

What if you pruned those activities that don’t light you up and doubled down on those that you’re genuinely excited about? How much more would you get out of what you’re doing, and how much more would you have to show for it on your college applications?

More doesn’t necessarily always mean better. In fact, sometimes less really is best.

Goofing off = better learning

Dr. Lea Waters is the author of The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. Here’s a snippet from her recent article in The Atlantic, “How Goofing Off Helps Kids Learn.”

“When parents seek my advice about what activities their child should be doing, they’re often surprised when I pare down their proposed list and prescribe free time during the week for good goofing off. It’s not that kids aren’t paying attention during this time, it’s that their attention has shifted within. Important things are going on in there. Even adults can only pay attention for about 20 minutes at a time before getting less effective. When a child has finished her math homework and is taking time between assignments to make a smoothie or read a chapter in a book, or when he comes home after school and blows off steam by shooting baskets in the backyard for an hour before starting his homework, the brain is still processing information very effectively. It’s sorting through what it’s taken in, attaching emotional meaning to it, cementing it in memory, and integrating it into the individual’s core self. It’s all part of building a child’s identity, about learning who they are apart from what they do.”

What’s the high school version?

If you’re one of those high school students who already has a future career in mind, consider this: what’s the high school version of that career?

Maybe you want to be a teacher. You can’t apply to a school and start teaching math next week. But you could pick something you know a lot about and teach other people how to do it. Start a YouTube channel and show people how to sketch freehand. Propose a continuing education class to a local community college and teach people how to program. Volunteer with a local organization that teaches illiterate adults how to read. Teaching in a school classroom might be limited to those with the right credentials. But the high school version lets you start teaching today.

A future doctor can get certified as an emergency medical technician and spend the summer running IVs in an ambulance.

A future full-time programmer can learn, experiment with, and spend time programming in their spare time.

If you want to make a living as a writer tomorrow, what’s stopping you from writing for a blog today?

Actors who spend two years vying for spots in community theater productions, or performing with a local improv group, or producing plays for elementary school kids will be a lot further ahead in their professional quest than those who limited their participation to high school productions.

Want to be a sports agent someday? Pick a sport at your high school and ask the coach, “What do your athletes need?” Then make it your quest to help them get it. Help raise funds to buy new uniforms for the lacrosse team. Find guest coaches to run clinics for the softball team. Handle all the logistics for the cross country team’s summer stay in the mountains to train at altitude. Imagine how much you’d learn about selling, strategizing, and advocating. Sounds like a budding sports agent to me.

Politics, philanthropy, business, art, music, dance, entrepreneurship–I can’t think of a profession that you couldn’t take some small (or even some surprisingly large) first steps towards while you’re still in high school.

What’s the high school version of your future career?

“Show, don’t tell…”

Fans of ABC’s Shark Tank, where investment-seeking entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to the cast of multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons (the sharks), have seen this scenario play out on the show. The sharks are interested, but on the fence, questioning if there’s enough potential in this business to earn their time, money, and attention. Sensing that he or she is at risk of losing their potential deal, the entrepreneur tries to tell the sharks what sets them apart.

“I’m relentless. I will not give up.”

“You won’t find someone who works harder than I do.”

“I am passionate about this!”

I’ve seen almost every episode of Shark Tank, but I’ve never seen any of these statements alone lure a shark to make an offer.

Persistence, hard work, and passion are prerequisites for entrepreneurial success. And just because you do those things doesn’t necessarily mean you have a viable business.

Would an NFL coach be swayed just because you claimed to practice hard?

Would a potential romantic partner be swayed just because you claimed to be a nice person?

Would a recruiter at Google or Apple be swayed just because you claimed to be passionate about technology?

In each of these cases—and on Shark Tank—showing works a lot better than telling does.

If you want to see how showing versus telling is done, scroll to 3:50 of this Shark Tank clip and watch entrepreneur Nathan Holzapfel. In just 20 seconds, he gets the sharks interested, not by telling them that he works hard and he cares and he keeps going, but by actually showing them. 20 seconds is all it takes for him to get billionaire investor Mark Cuban to belt out, “I love you—I LOVE you!”

When you’re writing your college essays, don’t just tell colleges that you’re resilient or hard-working or passionate. Show them.

And if you’re working your way through high school, remember that the best way to be successful and to get into college is to put your natural strengths to the best use so you have something to show for them.

Five reads on leadership & college admissions

Leadership is one of the most misunderstood traits in the college admissions process. That fundamental misunderstanding is why students who are thriving at their part-time jobs, in their after-school art classes, or in their martial arts training will ask if their lack of leadership will hurt their admissions chances. It’s why so many kids start clubs in the fall of their senior year so they can list them on their college applications. And it’s why so many parents feel pressured to send their kids to expensive summer programs that claim to have identified their students as emerging high school leaders and promise to enhance their skills.

If you’d like to better understand how colleges actually view, evaluate, and reward leadership, here are five quick reads that will dispel most of the myths, help you identify if and how your own leadership could be an admissions strength, and potentially relieve you of any unnecessary feelings of leadership shortcomings.

Here’s a great reminder from the University of Virginia that colleges appreciate leadership, but not more or less so than they do plenty of other valuable high school experiences.

A broader sampling of colleges’ views courtesy of Brennan Barnard, who asked a number of college admissions officers to share their thoughts on what it means to lead.

Here’s an example of effective leadership at the high school level.

And another example, this one of leadership without an official title.

And finally, some advice on how to be a leader without a leadership position.

Have a happy and safe Fourth of July!

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.