A high school activity that will make you stand out

If you’re the editor of the school paper, the president of the Spanish club, or the person in charge of fundraising for the cheerleading squad, you’ve got an important job to do.  You’ll get to try a lot of things, and some will work better than others.  But you’ll learn a lot as you go.  And at the end of the year, you’ll probably feel like now you could do the job even better by applying what you learned.

Why not share your expertise publicly?

What if the editor wrote a downloadable e-book and gave it away for free to any high school editor that wanted one?

What if the Spanish club president built a simple, free web page of all the best recipes they used for their lunches, a list of activities they did that the members really enjoyed, and a write up of their most successful events describing exactly what they did?

What if the fundraiser wrote a blog and shared everything she tried–both successful and unsuccessful–with downloadable copies of their pitch emails, photos of their most successful fundraisers, and tips other fundraising folks could learn?

Now you’re not just helping yourself and your organization.  You’re helping the person who will take your place next year.  And you’ll be helping other people in your position around the country—maybe even around the world.

And instead of just telling colleges you were the editor or the president or the fundraising chair, you could add,

“I wrote an e-book about how to be a good editor of the high school paper, and it’s been downloaded over 1200 times.”

“I built a webpage detailing how we ran the Spanish club, and it’s gotten over 2000 page views in just three months.”

“I wrote a blog about our fundraising experiences with tips to help other organizations learn from our success and mistakes, and I’ve gotten emails from over 400 students all over the country asking for my advice.”

That would get any college’s attention.  Too bad nobody’s doing it.  Yet.

What you can learn from a good class clown

Have you ever seen the movie Superbad?  Did you know the guy who wrote the screenplay did it back when he was 13 years old?  He signed up for a comedy class when he was just 12 and wrote the screenplay with a friend the following year.  By the time he got to high school, people were paying him to do stand up comedy at bar mitzvahs, parties and bars.  When he was 16, he won the Vancouver Amateur Comedy Contest.  Then he got a small part on a TV show

Today, he’s a movie star

The difference between Seth Rogen and the typical class clown is that Seth actually worked hard at being funny.  When a lot of other 13-year-olds were playing video games and watching TV, he and his buddy sat down and wrote a script that was later turned into a major motion picture.  He took classes.  He kept practicing.  He kept seeking out opportunities to get better.  That's dedication to your craft.

What would happen if you put the same time and effort into being funny, or dancing, or writing poetry, or playing the drums, or being a peer counselor, or training guide dogs for the blind, or running cross country, or solving complex math problems, or volunteering at your church, or anything else that you enjoy and want to be good at?   Some activities demand total dedication (we notice that our students who are swimmers are pretty much never fully dry).  But many–like stand up comedy–don't.  You have to make the choice to spend the time to get really good at it.

Yes–for those who know his story–I know that Rogen dropped out of high school and never went to college (he moved to LA to try to make it in show business).  I’m not suggesting you do the same. 

But if had wanted to go to college and did the academic work to get there, he would have had some pretty impressive activities and accomplishments to list on his application.  I’ll bet his college essays would have been hysterical.  And a lot of colleges would have happily welcomed a professional comedian into the dorms to make other students laugh.   

Why the nice tuba player will be just fine

At 6:45 a.m yesterday as I was finishing my morning run at the local high school’s track, the marching band was just making their way to the field to practice their formations.  And the fact that the entire band was walking out together meant that they’d probably arrived even earlier to rehearse inside first.   It wasn’t even 7 a.m. yet, but there were the clarinetists, flutists, saxophonists, percussionists, and a lone tuba player who looked to be a freshman with a tuba almost as large as he was.  Just a bunch of high school kids happy to be there practicing with the marching band before school.

It’s hard not to be impressed when you see nice kids working hard at things they enjoy.   I feel the same way when I see the cross country team out running together during the summer or the kid working behind the counter at the local In-N-Out Burger after school.  Kids and parents should know that your work ethic, curiosity, how you treat other people, how you commit yourself to things that matter to you—those traits, not the name of the college you attend, are what will determine your future success and happiness. 

If you’re a nice kid who works hard, does your best, and plays a mean tuba in the marching band, you’re going to be just fine whether or not Georgetown says yes.

Five ways to improve high school fundraising

A lot of teams, school newspapers and other high school organizations try to solicit contributions from local businesses by selling advertising and promising “great exposure.”  But when’s the last time you saw a printed advertisement or a sign that made you say, “I am going to buy that product!”  An ad in your program, a sign on your center field fence, or listing as a donor in the event program isn’t real exposure for a business.  The audience wants to see the game, read the paper, or watch the performance.  They ignore the ads. 

Here are five ways you could make your fundraising more effective.

1. Let the students do the work.

It’s great that parents want to get involved with fundraising and help their kids.  But I’m going to be honest—it’s a lot easier to say no to a parent who’s doing this for her kid than it is to reject a nice high school student who’s asking you to help support the school’s marching band.  And please don’t tell me the kids are too busy to do it themselves.  I know they’re busy.  I’m busy, too.  Kids should be willing to put in the fundraising effort if they want businesses to give them money.      

2.    Don’t be afraid to be needy.

You need the support more than a business needs an ad.  And there’s nothing wrong with a high school organization needing some fundraising help.  So don’t present this as a win-win business opportunity for the business.  Telling someone, “Your ad will be prominently displayed in our 24-page program!” isn’t as likely to move a small business to contribute as being honest and asking for help will.  A smart business owner will want to support the community more than she’ll want faint “exposure.”  

3.  Tell them what you need the money for.

A small business is a lot more likely to contribute if they know and can feel good about what the money will do.  “Support our school lacrosse team” isn’t as compelling as, “Help our lacrosse team replace our worn-out equipment this year.”

4. Give them something real in return.

If you want a pizza parlor to buy an ad, offer to hold the team banquet there.  Tell them they can have a signed picture of the team in the new uniforms (see #3) that the business can proudly display to their customers.  Or offer to hand out coupons for their meal specials at your games so you can actually drive some business their way.  Those are small gestures that will go a long way towards convincing a business to give you the support you need.

5. Don’t forget to thank them.

I’ve run close to 100 ads in support of high school organizations, but nearly every time, the only thanks I get is an email from someone new the following year asking me to contribute again.  That’s not a good way to ensure repeat contributions.  No business helps in these situations just because they expect something in return.  But if you take the time to thank them personally, you’re much more likely to cultivate a relationship that will make the business want to keep contributing.  

Show colleges your impact

Colleges want to know that you are going to be a contributing member to their campus community.  That means that they aren’t just evaluating the activities in which you participated; they're looking for students who made an impact during their involvement.

Sometimes the impact you make is big and noticeable.  Other times, it’s more subtle.  But big or small, impact is important.  So make sure to communicate where you made yours.

For example:

  • You didn’t hold a leadership position in the French Club, but it was your idea to host a school lunch as a fundraiser, which raised $800 for the club.
  • You resurrected the then-defunct school newspaper, secured sponsorships and advertising to fund it, and served as Editor-in-Chief (big impact).
  • You’ve always loved giving haircuts to your friends, and you’re pretty good at it.  So, you did the hair and make-up for all the actors and actresses in the school play.
  • You started a canned food collection program that eventually donated 1200 cans of food to local homeless shelters (big impact).
  • You love to bake.  So, when the junior class held its first “junior lock-in,” when the entire junior class stayed in the gym for an entire night doing team- and trust-building exercises with the youth minister at your school, you baked over 600 chocolate chip cookies – and none of them were left by the morning!

Colleges know that these students won't stop making their impact once they get to college.  When you're applying, think about ways you might be able to make an impact once you get there.  Then talk about how you see yourself doing it.  Your ideas for contributions don’t have to be big, like starting a campus-wide community service group.  They can be small things that make other peoples' college experiences even better.

For example: 

  • A Collegewise student who wrote his essay about his work at a hamburger stand mentioned in his last paragraph that, if a student in his dorm needed a double-cheeseburger deluxe to get through finals, he’d be right there with his spatula.
  • One of our kids wrote her essay about working as an emergency medical technician and said that she would know exactly what to do if someone in her dorm slipped and hit her head in the shower.
  • A student who loved to play guitar wrote about how much he enjoyed teaching his little brother to play, and that he was anxious to do the same with others in his dorm.

In your essays and applications, try to communicate at least one way in which you made an impact on your school, community, club, team, organization, etc.  If you’re given the opportunity, talk a little bit about what you’ll give back once you get to college, too.

And remember that for your colleges to believe you when you describe how you will contribute, it’s best to be honest and not worry so much about being impressive.  If you can more easily see yourself baking cookies for your dorm than you can starting a community outreach program, tell the truth about your baking prowess.

Take ownership

There’s usually no shortage of people with great ideas.  What’s lacking is people who will take ownership of one and make sure it gets done. 

If you want to make a bigger impact on your club, organization, or team this year (and help your chances of getting into college), be one of those people who takes ownership of an idea and actually gets it done.  Don’t just suggest a fundraiser for the soccer team—be the one who makes it happen.  Don’t just point out that it would be nice if the drama club had new sets—get the right people together and actually build them.  Don’t just suggest that the non-profit where you volunteer should recruit more volunteers—offer to actually do something about it.

It’s fine if you’re an idea person, too.  But what really matters is the doing.  You don’t get credit for an idea unless it actually happens.  But you always get credit for doing something, even if it wasn’t your idea.  Combining the two is just extra credit. 

It’s the difference between, “Here’s what we should do” and, “Here’s what I will do.”  

Don’t believe everything you read

Friday’s New York Times article (For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers) is a good example of how the press exacerbates the degree to which college admissions has spun out of control. 

One student mentioned in the article spent his summer studying Mandarin in China, then returned the following summer to work for a market research firm in Shanghai.  His parents paid big bucks to hire a consulting firm that helped him land those gigs.  He later wrote his college essay about “trading jokes with long-dead Ming Emperors, stringing my string hammock between two plum trees and calmly sipping fresh green tea while watching the sun set on the horizon.”  And he was admitted to Yale.

Of course he was admitted to Yale.  The New York Times would never include him in the story if he ended up attending a not-so-famous college most readers had never heard of. And it wouldn’t be newsworthy to profile some of thousands of kids attending college, including prestigious schools, who spent their high school summers bagging groceries or taking not-for-credit cooking classes at a community college or volunteering at the local public library.

A lot of students who read that story will feel like their part time job scooping ice cream isn’t enough, that if their families can’t pay for them to attend an expensive summer program, they’re going to be at an admissions disadvantage, which is just not true.  Stories like this aren't inaccurate, but they're not representative of what's really happening in college admissions, either. 

You don’t need to hire a consultant and go to China to learn Mandarin.  And you certainly don’t need to do that to get into college today.  That’s not a story that’s going to sell newspapers, but it’s the truth. 

Get a job

Every teenager should have a part-time job at some point in high school.  And I don't mean a fancy-sounding job you get at your mom or dad’s company.  I mean a regular, honest-to-goodness, flipping burgers, bagging groceries, ringing a cash register, sweeping the floors kind of job. 

There’s some discussion on The Choice blog today about part-time jobs and how they’re viewed in college admissions.  Most of the comments reassure kids that part time jobs are perfectly acceptable, that colleges understand the realities of financial need.  Sorry, but that’s just not a strong enough endorsement.

If there's space on an application to list activities, part time jobs help you get into college.  Every admissions officer I’ve ever talked to (including the ones who work at Collegewise now) would tell you that it’s just impossible not to like a kid who scoops ice cream or pours coffee or takes tickets at the movie theater to make some extra money.  There’s no ulterior motive, no hidden strategy to impress colleges when a student chooses to serve frozen yogurt part time.  You can’t always say the same about the kid whose family pays $6,000 to send him to summer school at an Ivy League.

Kids who have part-time jobs also learn a lot.  They learn how to deal with angry customers.  They learn how to show initiative, how to work well with people, and how to make an impact in their roles.  I’ve read some wonderful college essays from kids who worked at McDonald’s and talked about how good it felt when they got promoted to shift manager and didn’t have to take orders at the drive-thru anymore.

So get a job.  You'll make some money.  You’ll have the first item to list on your professional resume.  And you’ll improve your chances of getting into college without spending any money to do it.  You can’t do those three things at Harvard Summer School.

Pay your knowledge forward by leaving some behind

Every activity in high school has a shelf life.  Whether you’re a section editor of the school paper, a pitcher on the baseball team or the vice-president of the student government, at some point, your term will end, you’ll graduate, or you’ll just move on to something else.  When that happens, consider leaving some knowledge behind for your replacement.

Maybe you just finished your term as the publicity director in your student government.   Why not write a document of everything you learned while you were doing it, what you’d do differently if you could, and what you wish someone had told you before you started?

It wouldn’t have to be long.  Just a page or two would be more than enough.  It might contain things like:

*If you’re making 2-3 signs a week promoting different events, you’re doing a good job.  But if you make 5-6 signs, you’re doing a great job and people will actually thank you for it.

*Someone will always feel like you’re not giving their group enough recognition.  Try not to take this personally.  All you can do is be fair and try to give as many groups some attention as you can.

*Dr. Rider (Vice Principal) gets upset whenever the marquee in front of the school is outdated.  He’ll call you out of class over and over and ask you to fix it.  But if you update it once a week, he’ll think you’re the greatest.

*The activities that don’t normally get a lot of publicity are also the people who will be the most thankful when you give them some.  Don’t make it all about the football team all the time.

*Recruit people to help you with publicity for homecoming week.  And start early.  I had to make 16 signs two days before homecoming and it took forever.

Imagine how much that would help a new person.

Even better, imagine how much stronger the entire organization would be if everyone involved did this.  What if every member of your school newspaper, yearbook, or Key Club made it his or her job to share some advice with the people who eventually replace them?

We try to do this at Collegewise by having counselors train new counselors and then refine the training at the end so that the next trainer can benefit..  Experienced essay specialists join our trainings of new essay specialists so they can share what they’ve learned.  It’s not something we even have to think about doing anymore.  We’ve just made it a habit.

Colleges are always looking for students who make an impact.  One way to do that is to set your replacement up for success.  Pay some knowledge forward by leaving yours behind for the next person.

How can you tell if you’ve chosen good activities?

If a college interviewer said to you, "Tell me a little bit about (insert one of your activities)," what would you say?

Would you have stories to tell?  Could you give some examples about your participation, what you've given and how you've made an impact?  Could you talk about the reasons why you've enjoyed it?

If you'd be stumped, you're either doing the wrong activities, not doing enough within them, or both.

When students love their activities and really try to make an impact, they have stories to tell.  Whether it's about quarterbacking the football team or riding the bench, holding the lead in the school play or running the lights, taking summer classes in Latin or teaching yourself to cook, working a summer job at a law firm or flipping burgers at Burger King, the right activities coupled with the right effort should produce good stories.

Pick things you like to do.  Then find a way to make an impact within each of them.  As long as you’re enjoying yourself, chances are you’ve chosen a good activity.