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 Rider (Vice Principal) gets upset whenever the marquee in front of the school is outdated.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.

Start a college visit club

Katie and I have visited 18 colleges between the two of us in the last week–Stevens, Sarah Lawrence, Fordham, Villanova, Princeton, Penn, Duke, Elon, University of Puget Sound and UNC Chapel Hill (for Katie); University of Minnesota, Macalester, Carleton, St. Olaf, Grinnell, Cornell College (the one in Iowa), UW Madison and Marquette (for me).  We didn't travel just to see the schools; she was training counselors in our New York office and I was speaking at conferences.  But whenever the Collegewise counselors find ourselves someplace with colleges nearby, we make a quick visit, take a few photos and share our impressions with the rest of the group when we get back. 

No one counselor could ever visit all of the over 2000 colleges.  But when we collaborate like this, it helps us learn more about schools from each other.  I can learn a little bit about a college I've never seen or had a student apply to just by calling one of our counselors who visited it while taking a vacation, or celebrating Thanksgiving with her family, or attending a conference. 

I think students should do the same thing.  Enter the “College Visit” club.

Imagine 20 members at your school joined a club and agreed that for the next year, each member would commit to visiting five colleges.  Each could plan trips to colleges they like, or see schools when they travel for other reasons (like visiting relatives for Thanksgiving), or do a combination of both. The visits don’t necessarily need to be long and involved.  You can take the tour, or you can just walk around, smell the air, soak in the atmosphere and take a few photos.  Maybe do a quick write up on each school to record your first impressions so you don’t forget. 

Then once or twice a quarter, the group could meet to share your college feedback, trade photos and write ups, and maybe answer questions about each of your visits.  If 20 members each visited five schools in a year, think how many first-hand reports about colleges you could share between students you know and trust. 

Sure, hearing about a college from a friend is not the same as visiting it yourself. But there are far too many colleges to see all of them.  And I'd rather hear a friend's impressions than rely on a college's website (which is designed to sell me) or a write-up in a college guidebook (written by someone who doesn’t know me at all). 

Bonus tip #1:  Share all your write-ups and photos in a blog and tell everyone at school about them.  Use the blog to grow the club.  Can you imagine how impressed a college would be if you told them that you started the college visit club and oversaw its growth into the largest club at school, a club that’s now posted write-ups and photos of over 100 colleges to a blog that now gets over 5,000 unique visitors a month (not just from your school, but from all over the world)?  It wouldn't be that hard. It would help a lot of students.  And I'll bet people would really enjoy it.  Somebody should do it.

Bonus tip #2—parents, if your kids won't start the club, start the parent version with 4-5 other like-minded parents.  Then bring your kids along for the visits.

Have to vs. want to

Arun is spending this weekend at a training in Miami with College Summit, a non-profit organization that helps under-resourced students get in to college.  He’s been volunteering there for seven years, not because he has to, but because he loves the work. 

Katie just finished training new counselors in our New York office. Then she hit the road to tour colleges like Princeton, Penn, Villanova, Duke and Sarah Lawrence (where she called us breathless because she was witnessing a student performing an interpretive dance on the lawn—gotta love Sarah Lawrence).  She doesn’t have to do it, but she’s a college geek of the highest order.  She loves learning about schools and seeing them first hand. 

And today, I’m doing a workshop for teachers at Malibu High School about how to help kids with college essays.  It’s not a paid workshop—I’m just sharing our college essay seminar that’s worked so well for us.  I don’t have to be there.  But I enjoy sharing it with teachers who can take it back to their classrooms.    

We’re far from the only professionals who do things outside of our normal work responsibilities not because we have to, but because we want to.  The doctor who’s been practicing for twenty years and still reads every issue of her monthly medical journals, the teacher who refines his lesson plans every year just to see how he can do a better job, and the lawyer who volunteers at a free legal aid center every other Saturday—they don’t do it because they have to.  They do it because they like to learn, contribute, and get even better at what they love to do.

That’s a lot like how happy, fulfilled and successful college applicants approach life in high school.  They take difficult classes because they want to learn alongside the hardest working students.  They volunteer at the soup kitchen because they enjoy spending time helping other people.  They play baseball, take photos for the yearbook, sing in the school musical, enroll in art classes on weekends, play the tuba in the marching band and bake authentic tamales for the Spanish Club meetings not because they have to (or just because they're hoping it will help them get into college), but because they love what they’re doing.

How could you spend more time doing things you want to, not because you have to?

What are you going to do this summer?

Which of the following summer activities would be most impressive to colleges?

A. Attending Harvard summer school
B. Working part time bagging groceries at the local grocery store
C. Taking a cooking class and learning how to make pasta from scratch
D. Attending a summer program in Costa Rica
E. Going to soccer camp

It's a trick question.  They're all equally impressive. 

You don't need to attend an expensive program to please colleges.  You don't have to do something that looks splashy on a resume.  Just keep being a motivated, interesting student.  Show them that you don't turn off your brain or your interests when school lets out.  And here are some suggestions of just how to do that this summer. 

Become more impressive by doing less

Some of the most impressive students become that way because they consciously chose to do less–to focus only on a few things at a time so they can really excel.

Cal Newport's post today tells the story Nicholas A. DiBerardino, a senior at Princeton who was just named a Rhodes Scholar.  According to his bio on the Rhodes Scholar website, Nick is Phi Beta Kappa, a campus leader in student government, and an accomplished composer with many awards for his compositions. He has been a composer in residence at the Brevard Music Center and the European American Musical Alliance in Paris. He founded the Undergraduate Composer Collective at Princeton. While in high school, Nick founded a program in Bridgeport. He plans to do the M.Phil. in music at Oxford.

No question about it–he's overwhelmingly impressive.  How does he do it?  Nick consciously tries to do less, focusing on just one important project at a time so he has as few distractions as possible.  As Cal describes it:


This pattern is common among elite students: they do very little, but do what they do very well."

How stories make your activities stand out

It's hard to make your activities stand out on a college application when you have to list them like this (the numbers are the grades in which the student participated):

Varsity soccer: 11, 12
Key Club: 10-12, President (12)
Spanish Club: 9-12, Treasurer (11)

This student should be proud of his involvement.  But it's not going to make him more noticeable than the hundreds of other students in the pile who have similar lists.  The problem isn't the activities–it's that the lists all start to look the same.

But what if that student used his short essay to talk about how he organized a fundraiser to bring the entire team to a soccer camp over the summer?

What if he mentioned in his interview that under his leadership, the Key Club raised $2,000 to put on a special prom for special ed students to attend?  What if he also pulled up a picture on his phone to show the interviewer the group photo taken at the event?

What if his long essay talked about how 60% of the students at his high school are recent immigrants from Mexico, and how he started a program in the Spanish Club that gave special campus orientations–in Spanish–to new Spanish-speaking students and their families?

He listed his activities just like the colleges asked him to.  But now it's clear that he is not like every other student.  He used the other parts of the application to share stories that showed exactly what kind of impact he makes on campus.  He's left the admissions officers with a snapshot of who he is.

Unless you're going to win an Olympic gold medal or invent a new element on the periodic table, it's hard to do an activity nobody else applying has done.  But you can do things in your activities that make you stand out.  And you can use the application to tell those stories. 

Community service and college admissions

Community service is a tricky subject when it comes to college admissions.  A lot of families are convinced that their student needs to have done it, and if they do, it's going to be a real boost to their student's chances of admission.  But neither of those things are necessarily true. 

Now, I’m not going to be the guy who says kids shouldn’t do community service (we should all be doing something).  But colleges don’t expect that every kid will be out ladling soup at a homeless shelter every weekend.  And there is no penalty imposed on a student who chooses to do other things.  Colleges just want kids to be productive and to pursue their interests.  For some students, that’s doing volunteer work.  For others, it’s soccer or jazz band or a part-time job at The Gap. 

Whatever the activity, focus more on whether or not you're enjoying it than you do on the total number of hours.  If you're going to do community service, do it because you really want to help, not because you're trying to please colleges. 

And never, ever ask a college admissions officer how many community service hours are "enough."  That's a quick way to make a not-so-good impression. 

If an activity isn’t important to you…

…why would it be important to any college?

Don't do any activity just because it "looks good to colleges."  Colleges don't care what you do.  They're more interested in how much you care about what you're doing.