The value of an activity/accomplishment journal

We see some students (and often their parents) who meticulously record every hour of community service, every award and every academic achievement.  There's value to that, especially given how many college applications will ask you to describe how you've spent your time, and to estimate the number of hours per week and weeks per year that you participated in each activity. 

But even those carefully updated resumes leave out something that lots of colleges want to know about.  How did those activities and accomplishments make you feel?  That's why I think students should keep an activity/accomplishment journal. 

Lots of colleges have essay questions that ask you to describe the activity that had the most meaning for you, or an accomplishment that makes you proud, or a mistake/failure you've experienced and what you've learned from it.  Colleges don't want just factual recitations of the events.  They want to hear how these experiences affected you.  And you'll never be better able to describe those moments than right after they actually happen.

You're never going to be more in touch with the pain of losing a city basketball championship, or the thrill of winning your first student council election, or the pride you felt when your first issue as editor of the school paper was published, than on the days those events took place.  Why not capture how you feel by writing a short paragraph, something just for yourself that you don't have to share with anyone? 

Here's an example of how this could really help you later. 

When you're a senior and a college asks you to describe an achievement that made you proud, you could try to think back three years ago and remember how it felt when you raised your grade in geometry from a D to B+.  You could try to describe how much you struggled in math and why it made you proud that you never gave up.  But it will be hard to recall the details of what it really felt like.     

Or you could look back at a short journal entry you wrote three years ago that read,

"Today I got my geometry test back, and it was the first time in my life that I got an 'A' on a math test.  As soon as I saw that big red "A" with a smiley face next to it that Mrs. Ashlock drew, I actually welled up with tears.  I was seriously worried my football teammates were going to see me cry, but I pulled it together.  It was a good day."

Bam.  You now have a powerful, specific example to include in your essay.

Yet another way to stand out

One of the more popular essay topics colleges now require is some version of, "How will you contribute to our campus community?" The best responses to that question come from students who've already become contributors to their high school campus communities.  Here's one way to do that, and it's a different way to stand out in college admissions.

Use your talent, skill or energy to benefit a campus group that you aren't even a part of.

Sure, it's good to lend your time and resources to the Red Cross club when you're a member, or the basketball team when you're the point guard, or the orchestra when you're the first chair violin.

But what if you made it your goal to get more people to come out and support the cross country team if you weren't actually a member of the team yourself?  Imagine how much the team would appreciate your efforts.  Even better, what if you started an organization whose mission was to support the school events that don't traditionally draw big crowds?  You'd be supporting members of the campus community.  And let's be honest.  Everyone who benefitted would love you for doing it.   

What if, after running a successful fundraiser for your own soccer team, you volunteered to help the football team, or the school newspaper, or the French club do the same thing, even if you weren't a member?  You'd be taking a skill you've learned and using it to make a broader impact on your campus community.  You'd be a selfless hero.

What if you love to write and offered to write an email newsletter for the student counsel, or to write the text for the football team's programs they sell, or snappy bios for the section editors of the school newspaper? 

What's something you can do that other people or organizations could benefit from?  Where could you make a contribution that would be needed and appreciated? 

One of the best ways to show a college how you'll contribute to their campus community is to contribute to your own.  And one of the best ways to contribute to your own is to use your talents and skills with no expectation of anything in return other than the grateful appreciation of the recipients. 

How to be a leader without a leadership position

Every high school has students in leadership positions–student council presidents, yearbook committees, and editors of the school papers. But you don't need to have a leadership position to be a leader.  Leaders rally people towards a better future together, and you don't have to be elected to do that.

Here are five examples of ways you can be a leader in your club or organization even if you haven't been elected to lead.

1.  Unstick a project.

Maybe your club, organization or team has a project that's been stuck, something that the group has been slow in accomplishing.  Why not make it your job to unstick it and get it done?  If it's too big for one person to do, be the one who takes on responsibility for driving the project forward and solicit volunteers to help you.

2.  Grow the group.

A lot of organizations need more members to really be successful.  Make it your mission to find and recruit new members and help the group grow.  Come up with creative ways to get the word out.  Organize activities designed to allow potential new members to learn more about what you all do, like a "Get-to-know-us" barbecue.  Approach people who you think might enjoy what your group does and invite them to come to a meeting.

3.  Solve a problem.

What's something that's slowing down your group's progress or inhibiting your success?  Make it your project to find a solution for the problem.  If your choir needs more sopranos, or your school newspaper needs more advertising, or the French club needs money for its annual luncheon, you could be the leader who solves that problem yourself (or organizes the team effort to do it).

4.  Organize all-star teams.

In a lot of clubs and organizations, teams of people come together based on who is interested in the project.  But those teams may or may not have the right people needed to get the project done.  What if you put a team together for a project based on the relative strengths of the members?  For example, if you're planning the homecoming dance, put an all-star team together.  The best math student can be in charge of keeping track of the money.  The most organized person can keep track of all the project's details.  The funniest member can actually have a job of doing comic relief and keeping peoples' spirits up when the stress builds.  And here's a bonus tip.  When you're putting together an all-star team, ask the quietest person in the group what he or she would like to do and encourage them to join you.  Sometimes it's the quiet people who have the most to contribute–they just haven't told anyone yet. 

5.  Put one of your own skills to use.

If you know how to make good websites, offer to make one for the drama club and put up clips of each of the members' best performances.  If you love to write, start an email newsletter for the student council and write articles are so useful and interesting that the student body will want to opt-in and read them.  If you can play guitar, put a small band together to play at the next club fair.  You're not leading a group, but you'll be leading by example as someone who's enthusiastic and committed to the group.

You don't need the title to be a leader.

Ask Collegewise: “How should I fill out the Common Application ‘Activities’ section?”

Ana asks:

NewQuotation

Hi there!  My name is Ana, and I am a huge fan of the Collegewise blog! The website is definitely one of the most informative resources for all things admissions, and it gives a levelheaded view that is rare in this often stressful process.  I was hoping you could answer a question of mine in a blog post. How should the extracurricular section of the Common Application be filled out? There is a drop down menu for selecting the type of activity, but where should the more specific title (ex. camp counselor, peer tutor, etc.) go: position held or activity?  What about the short description of the activity? If you have some spare time and could post an example Common App activities form with a few different activities, it would be extremely helpful to me and many other confused seniors!  Thanks for your time and your awesome blog."

Flattery like that will get you everywhere, Ana.  Here are a few tips for the activity section of the Common App.

Let's say your three principal activities are volleyball, writing for the school newspaper, and working as a camp counselor over the summer.  Here's how you might approach those. 

The drop down menu

Select the activity from the drop-down menu.  It's important to let this drop down menu do the work for you.  Look carefully and try to find a category that works before you select "Other club/activity."  There are a lot of categories you might not expect to find, like "Family responsibilities," "cultural," "academic," etc.

 Positions held, honors won, or letters earned

This section is for three things–your roles, titles and recognitions.  For example, if you work as a camp counselor, that's your role.  Put "Camp counselor" here.  If you were the Editorial Page Editor for the school newspaper, that's a title–put that here.  If you were the captain, MVP, and first-team all state in volleyball, those are recognitions.  Put those here.   

Roles, titles and recognitions are short and punchy, like “Varsity,” “Eagle Scout,” "Coach's Award," “Counselor,” “Founder,” “Sports Editor” or  “Captain”.  Anything that takes more space to explain should be put in the next section. 

Details and accomplishments

Ask yourself two questions for this section.  1)  Is it possible that whoever is reading this application might not understand what this activity really was based on the previous two sections alone?  2) Did I or the organization accomplish anything that can’t be summed up with a simple recognition that I listed above?  If the answer to either of those two questions is “Yes,” then you should provide that information here.

For example, let’s say you listed your camp counselor work under “Work (Paid).”  But what if the camp was specifically for children with physical and mental disabilities?  That’s something interesting the reader wouldn’t know just from the previous two sections.  So here’s where you could put the name and description of the camp, like “Special Camp for Special Kids: Camp for children with physical and mental disabilities.” 

And what if your school paper won a state-wide award during your junior year? That’s a cool accomplishment that can’t be summed up in the previous two sections.  So here’s where you could say, “2/2010 issue won the state-wide journalism award, “Excellence in Student Press.”

Somewhat annoyingly, the “Save and Check for Errors” function of the Common App will tell you you’ve made an error if you leave this section blank.  So even if you’ve already described everything necessary about an activity, you might need to just fill this space in with “High school football” just to get past the error message.  Try to include information here that fits the categories I’ve described, but if you just don’t have anything else to say, don’t ruin it by trying to make it sound good.  Just put the basic description in and move on. 

So using the example above, our completed Common App activity section would look like this when it's printed:

CommonAppActivity

 

A few other Common App activity tips:

  • Make sure you click the “Preview” button at the top of the screen when you finish this section.  That’s the only way to really tell whether your responses fit in the spaces provided.
  • Pay attention to the directions for this section:  “Please list your principal extracurricular, volunteer, and work activities in their order of importance to you.”  It's important to make sure your activities really are listed in order of importance to you.  The first activity you list should be the one you’d pick if you were only allowed to list one activity (that’s a trick we teach our Collegewise students).  
  • “Principal activities” mean activities that were important to you.  And they don't necessarily have to be formal activities.  It's OK to list a hobby that's important to you, too.  So if you played JV badminton freshman year and never played again, it obviously didn't mean enough to keep playing.  Why take up the space with it here?  But if you write a blog, or host a book club, or knit sweaters, and it's something you really enjoy and spend a lot of time doing, it’s OK to list that here. 
  • Don’t try to list everything you’ve ever done.   It’s OK to have blank spaces.  Our sample student above only listed three activities.  But they were the three activities that defined her high school experience.  The reader gets what was important to her.  She doesn't need her to list anything else.
  • Don’t attach a resume.  The directions in this section (“…even if you plan to attach a resume”) make it sound like that’s something the colleges invite.  They don’t.  In fact, most colleges hate resumes.  They’re too long, they come in too many different formats, and they ignore the activity section of the college’s application.  Unless a college specifically instructs you to do a resume, we tell our students not to do one. 

CommonAppGuideImage And (shameless self-promotion coming) if you'd like more help, you might enjoy our Collegewise Guide to the Common Application.  We take you through every section of the Common App and share the same advice we share with our Collegewise students. 

Thanks for your question, Ana.  I hope it helps.

With activities, don’t follow the crowd

I've met a lot of kids who have volunteered at hospitals.  But I've only ever met one who worked as an emergency medical technician.  She wrote her essay about her first night on the job when she did chest compressions in the back of a speeding ambulance on a 19 year-old motorcycle accident victim who had just gone into full cardiac arrest. 

Volunteering at a hospital is a popular choice for high school kids.  But I'll bet she was the only kid working for that ambulance company.

Lots of kids go to expensive summer programs at colleges.  But I've only ever met one who spent his summers taking history classes at his local community colleges for $20 per unit.  He got to know one of the professors, and she shared the reading assignments for her upper division course on George Washington.  He didn't care whether any college would look favorably on it–that's not what it was about for him.  He was just obsessed with history and wanted to know more. 

Lots of kids play an instrument in the high school jazz band.  But I've only ever met one who also played trumpet in a real mariachi band. He wasn't doing it to put it on his college applications–he just liked playing good music (and wearing the authentic mariachi outfit). 

The problem with popular activities is that they're crowded.  It's much harder to make an impact and stand out if lots of other students are doing exactly the same thing you are.  And the truth is that if you really care about what you're doing, if you're really interested and you're not doing it just to put it on your college applications, the popular choices won't be appealing to you.

If you really want to help people, you probably won't be satisfied volunteering at a hospital doing exactly the same thing the other 30 student volunteers are doing.  Why not work at an ambulance company?  Or better yet, volunteer at a mobile health clinic that travels to the poorest parts of town.  Or find a doctor who focuses on under-served populations and offer to help her for free.

If you really want to learn more about history, don't pay thousands of dollars to go to a famous college's summer program where lots of other students are just paying to play.  Go after your knowledge and take a local class with only 12 students, one where you can really get to know the professor.  Or read as many books as you can about the period that interests you.  Or email a professor at a local college and ask if you can meet him during his office hours so he could recommend the best ways for you to learn more about the Civil War. 

If you really love to play music, you probably won't be satisfied just playing in the jazz band.  You'll find a mariachi band, or a dixieland band that plays at retirement homes, or a slot at a local coffee shop where you can play on Sundays. 

The students who have the most rewarding experiences in their activities, who ultimately stand out from the crowd when they apply to college, are the students who care a lot more about following their interests then they do about following the crowd.

How your free time can make you more interesting to colleges

How you answer this question says a lot about how interesting you'll be to colleges.

Imagine that all of your obligations–school, homework, soccer practice, anything that fills your schedule–magically disappeared for the next month (and you were somehow guaranteed that their disappearance would in no way negatively affect you or your college future).  What would you do with that time?

Interesting students have interesting answers that question, like..

  • Try to see one baseball game in every single major league park in America.
  • Take some Italian cooking classes.
  • Adopt a guide dog for the blind and train it.
  • Travel to Europe and backpack for a month.
  • Make more of my jewelry and sell it on Etsy
  • Surf every day and maybe take some fishing trips with my friends.
  • Run a marathon.
  • Relax, write in my journal, and read whatever I wanted.
  • Take all the cool classes my gym offers that I never have time to take, like yoga and hip-hop dance.
  • Draw a lot.  Maybe do some painting, too.
  • Play pick-up basketball games with my friends.

Here's the thing about interesting people–they have interests.  Not things they're doing just to help them get into college, but real interests, things they enjoy and want to spend more time doing, or new things they'd like to explore.  That's why interesting students love this scenario. 

Less interesting kids say things like:

  • I have no idea. 
  • Sleep a lot and hang out with my friends.
  • Study for the SAT.
  • Get more community service hours at the local homeless shelter.

There's nothing wrong with those answers.  It's not bad to work at a homeless shelter.  It's just sad that the kid's doing it just to pad his service hours.  How much better would it be for him and for the people he's helping if he volunteered somewhere he really cared about?  Answers like these aren't indicators of real interests.  They indicate either a lack of interests, or a focus on doing things just to get you into college.   

A
lot of high school students fill their schedules with so many
obligations, so many scheduled activities that they believe will make
them "look good to colleges," that they don't have any genuine interests of
their own.  Working hard and committing yourself to your college future is a good thing, but you're still allowed to have free time to pursue real interests.  In fact, the colleges will reward you for doing it.

How to get into Stanford with Bs on your transcript

I can't believe I'd never found Cal Newport's blog until yesterday. 

He's a Phi Beta Kappa grad from Dartmouth who also got a PhD in electrical engineering from MIT in 2009.  And he's the author of a new book, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out

But the real reason I was so happy to find his work is that he's all about showing students:

  • How to live a low-stress, under-scheduled, relaxed high school lives yet still do phenomenally well in college admissions. 
  • How you can get into great colleges and have a successful life by simply doing fewer things, doing them better, and knowing why you're doing them
  • Why it's more important in college admissions that you be interesting than it is for you to be impressive.

And even if you're one of those students who has your heart set on a
highly selective college, Cal's techniques can work for you, too. For starters, check out his post, How to Get Into Stanford with Bs on your transcript.

No more meetings?

Students, how many hours did you spend sitting in meetings last year for your French Club, student body government, yearbook or newspaper staff?  Probably a lot.  But were all those meetings really necessary? 

What would happen if your school instituted a "No more meetings" rule for clubs and organizations?  Would your club be mortally wounded?  Would the yearbook staff or the school newspaper stop functioning?  Probably not.  And that's got to make you wonder why you're bothering to have as many meetings as you're having.

Here's an excerpt from a chapter in Rework entitled "Meetings are toxic."  

NewQuotation

When you think about it, the true cost of meetings is staggering.  Let's say you're going to schedule a meeting that lasts one hour, and you invite ten people to attend.  That's actually a ten-hour meeting, not a one-hour meeting.  You're trading ten hours of productivity for one hour of meeting time…Is it ever OK to trade ten or fifteen hours of productivity for one hour of meeting?  Sometimes, maybe.  But that's a pretty hefty price tag to pay. 

So, what if your French Club, newspaper or yearbook staff cut your yearly number of meetings in half?  What if the leadership of those organizations did a better job of communicating, delegating and managing without necessarily requiring everyone to get together?  How much more productive would everyone be if they spent what would have been meeting time writing, planning, and working?

I'm not sure how well it would work, but it might be worth trying.  Involved students have busier schedules than ever before.  And the easiest way to find more hours in the day to relax, have fun, or sleep might be to lighten your meeting load.