The care formula

We’re always preaching to our Collegewise families that there is no magic list of activities that look good to colleges. The student who seeks leadership positions or completes community service hours driven only by the desire to “look good to colleges” just isn’t as compelling of an applicant as those who threw themselves into—and made an impact doing—things they really enjoyed.

Collegewise counselor Nandita Gupta read 8,000 applications as an admissions officer at Stanford. During our recent webinar on highly selective college admissions, she shared this observation about why it’s so important to choose activities because you love doing them, not because you hope they will get you into college.

“If you don’t care about it, there’s no way an admissions officer will care about it. The students that we, as admissions officers, care the most about are the ones who care the most about what they’re doing.”

Whenever you start to wonder if you’re doing activities that will help you get into college, go back and read that quote. Ask yourself how much you care about what you’re doing. And if you don’t like the answer, find things you care more about. You’ll be a happier, and more successful, college applicant.

Leave bigger shoes to fill

Many high school students began this year in leadership positions—editor of the yearbook, president of the student body, captain of the football team, etc. You should be proud that you earned the trust and respect of those who put you in charge. But it’s also important to remember that getting the position is just half of your leadership story that colleges will want to know about. The other half will be what you do in that role.

If your version of leading is to hold meetings and do the same things in the same ways that the leader before you did them, that’s not a compelling story. Leaders see potential and help others see it, too. At the end of your tenure, you and your members should be able to look back proudly and fondly at what you accomplished together. And that should challenge the next leader to do the same.

If you’re committed to leaning into your leadership role, here are a few questions to consider. Think about them, and pose them to those you work with if you’d like.

1. Who are your customers?
Every organization serves someone. The student government exists to serve their fellow students. The Gay/Straight Alliance exists to serve LGBT students and their allies. And plenty of organizations exist to serve their own members in part or in full, like the baseball team, the Improv Club, or the Math Team. But your organization needs to know who it’s serving, and your leadership needs to be clear about it. Then you can chart your path and make decisions from the frame of “How will this be good for those we serve?”

2. What would a successful stint look like?
People like to work together towards a common vision of success. The leadership team needs to paint that picture. If your group did a fantastic job this year, what would that look like? How would you measure it? Number of wins? Total funds raised? Members recruited? Initiatives successfully completed? If you think this doesn’t apply to your group, then ask the reverse question—what would a terrible year look like? If you run the DJ Club and can’t picture what success looks like, it’s pretty easy to figure out what failure looks like—unhappy members, people quit, the club needs to disband, etc. Then get to work defining the opposite of that vision—happy members, more people attending meetings, a flourishing club that’s established and appreciated on campus, etc.

3. What will you do today?
Vivid portrayals of future success are inspiring, but they can also be fleeting. If you don’t make immediate progress, the inspiration fades. The vision becomes all talk. And the goals start to seem unreachable. So once your group agrees on what you want to accomplish tomorrow, decide what you’re going to do today to start marching toward that goal. Maybe you need to recruit more members, or start pre-season conditioning workouts, or focus your rehearsal efforts to prepare for the upcoming school talent show. Today’s actions lead to tomorrow’s goals. And the lift you’ll get from those mini accomplishments along the way will keep you and your organization striving.

Your goal as a leader? Help others see the potential for things to be better, happier, more fun, safer, etc. for those you serve. Channel that enthusiasm into actions you can take today. If you do it right, not everything you try will work (that’s an inherent risk of trying new things). But you’ll almost certainly leave bigger shoes to fill at the end of your leadership stint.

For more on leading, managing, and why the two are not the same, check out Marcus Buckingham’s book, The One Thing You Need to Know.

When good for you is bad for others

I’ve written often here that I think quitting gets a bad rap, especially in high school. Not all quitting is good, but successful people quit things all the time. They’re just strategic about what and when they do it. That’s why I’ve never heard a college say that they would prefer that students plod through an activity they can no longer stand just to prove that they don’t quit.

But there’s one important quitting consideration I hadn’t thought of as it pertains to high school students. Are you breaking a commitment that you’ve made, and if so, will this negatively affect other people?

If you committed to a team, job, role, position, etc., what would happen to those people if you were to leave? Will the volleyball team be without its starting setter? Will your boss now have nobody to cover your shifts? Will the student council be without a treasurer? There’s a reason they call it honoring a commitment, and while I do advocate good quitting as a way to keep yourself engaged and happy, you don’t want what’s good for you to be bad for other people unless it’s absolutely unavoidable.

If you’re considering ending a commitment before its natural conclusion, here are a few things to consider to help you make that transition responsibly. No college admissions officer I’ve met would want you to stay in something that makes you miserable, but they’d also like to see that you appreciate the gravity of a commitment even when it’s no longer paying you back.

1. Talk to someone in charge.
Instead of just up-and-leaving one day, start by talking to your coach, boss, advisor, etc. Make it clear that you’re considering doing something else, but more importantly, be honest about your reasons. Sometimes it feels better to get things out in the open, and it’s possible that the person in charge might help you find a way to help you reengage happily. But even if that doesn’t happen, having the potentially difficult conversation is the right thing to do—and you’ll get credit for being responsible and mature enough to bring it up before you walk out.

2. Ask how you can best leave with minimal disruption.
If it’s clear that it’s time for you to go, ask the person in charge how you could best leave with minimal negative effects on the team, group, co-workers, etc. Maybe you can stay another couple weeks until they find a replacement? Maybe you can take the time to teach someone else how to do what you’ve been doing? Maybe you can finish your current project before you depart? Just asking the question shows that you’re honoring your commitment. And if you help make the departure as smooth as possible, you’ll probably end up leaving on good terms. Which brings me to…

3. Commit to being a part of the transition.
One smart way to leave a commitment behind is to make a new commitment to help with the transition. Offer to help find a replacement. Train the new person. Write down everything you’ve been doing and how you’re doing it so the replacement can get up to speed fast. I write often about leaving behind a legacy. And helping with a transition will change a legacy that could have been “She left us when we needed her” to “She made sure we were okay before she left.”

These steps won’t necessarily apply to every scenario. Sometimes, circumstances dictate that you have to end a commitment immediately whether or not you’d like to. But as much as I encourage high school students to commit to activities that make them happy and to leave behind those that don’t, once you make those commitments, think twice before you do something that’s as bad for others as it will be good for you.

What happens next

Some college admissions strategies gain a reputation in admissions circles as just that—a strategy to gain admission, rather than a sincere reflection of an applicant’s passion. Expensive pre-college programs at prestigious universities, summer trips to far-flung lands in the name of relief work, internships (often secured through parent connections) at famous firms—not every student who does these things is trying to game the system. But admissions officers have a keen eye for separating sincere, substantial commitments from those completed for the sake of adding them to a college application.

The new flavor? Starting non-profits.

Starting a non-profit isn’t the hard part. Sticking with it, doing the hard work to fulfill the mission, showing up again and again to help those the non-profit ostensibly exists to serve—that’s the hard part.

If you’ve thought about starting a non-profit in the interest of impressing colleges, please know that colleges will be far more interested in what you and your non-profit do after starting.

And if you’ve identified a cause or group you’d sincerely like to help, you might consider joining an existing program if one exists. There are hundreds of non-profits, volunteer groups, or even just circles of like-minded citizens who are already doing the work to help those who need it.  You can bypass all the paperwork, red tape, and preliminary start-up steps and instead jump right in and start helping.

I applaud any student who finds the time and energy to help people, including those students who found organizations committed to causes they care about.

But like most work worth starting, what happens next is what matters most.

What gets measured gets managed

Activity sections in college applications look different than they used to.

In the years before I started Collegewise in 1999, many applications simply asked students to list each activity, along with any titles or associated recognition. But that made it difficult for a college to tell how committed a student had really been to one activity over another. They could see glimpses of where the student had enjoyed success. But without asking for more information, the message most applicants received was that the more activities they could list, the better.

That changed when colleges started asking for details about a student’s actual time spent participating. They asked students to list not just the years (grades 9-12) spent, but also to estimate the number of hours per week and weeks per year. That allowed colleges to differentiate between an activity in which a student had really spent significant time participating, and those that were short-term, comparatively less important commitments.

Colleges also began to make it clear that they weren’t looking for well-rounded applicants; they were looking for well-rounded classes. A student who participated in a variety of activities was less appealing than one who focused on a few substantial commitments. Colleges even came up with a term to describe the opposite of the well-rounded but unfocused applicants: “angular” students.

But the measure of time is imperfect. And as is often the case, what gets measured gets managed.

Today, many students ask how many hours of community service are “enough.” They’re more likely to diligently plod through something they don’t enjoy. They hesitate to abandon an activity that’s lost its luster for fear of giving up a demonstrated continuous commitment.

More hours per week, more weeks per year, more years during high school. If that’s what colleges want, that’s what nervous college applicants will give.

The college admissions process isn’t perfect. It’s not always fair either, as is the case with most selection processes that aren’t meritocratic. Dating and hiring work the same way–there’s no infallible process that guarantees the right choice.

But the applications, and the process, are engineered to share as much information as possible, in ways that will help admissions officers make the best choices. And today’s version of the activity section is no different.

Colleges understand that students have limited hours, days, weeks, etc. spent outside of class. How do you choose to spend those hours? Have you experienced any success? Have you made an impact on the people, the organization, or the constituency? Will you leave a legacy when you’re gone, one that will be missed?

And most importantly, have you enjoyed what you’ve done? That’s arguably the most important measurement. A student who lights up when discussing an activity is one who is most likely to channel that passion and those talents into something—similar or different—once they get to college.

It’s not about how many activities you do. It’s not about how many hours you spend doing them. It’s about whether or not you have the initiative, curiosity, and work ethic to commit to things you care about. It’s about how you use your inherent talents to make an impact. And most importantly, it’s about you. Your interests are an important part of what make you interesting. That—the entire collection—is what colleges are trying to measure.

They don’t always measure it perfectly. But if you know that’s what they’re evaluating, you can make good decisions to help you manage what’s being measured.

Here’s a past post with more on how to evaluate your activities, another about impact and how to measure it, and a final one about how interests make you interesting.

Are you doing drive-by charity work?

Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times piece, To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti? explores the trend for college applicants to engage in what he calls “drive-by charity work,” the “so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.”

If you’re under the impression that these programs offer an admissions boost and that they might make for good college essay fodder, please give the article a read and pay particular attention to these passages:

“’The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,’ Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.”

And if you’re looking for a good, non-drive-by example of a summer that colleges will appreciate:

“Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone ‘who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are. He wrote about how people looked right through him at the counter.’”

The one question not to ask colleges

If I could pick one question not to ask a college admissions rep at any fair, presentation, or tour, here it is:

How many hours of community service are enough/look good/should I do, etc.?

I understand why kids ask. But this question, which comes up all the time, highlights everything that’s wrong with college admissions. No admissions officer will ever quote you a number. And one of the few things that will annoy them more than the question is the student or parent who won’t take “There is no magic number” for an answer and instead keeps pushing for an exact figure.

Do it because you want to help people, because it’s the right thing to do, and because it makes you feel good. Your motivation—and the resulting impact—matter much more than the total number of hours does.

Couldn’t have said it better

From the “What to Do in High School” section of MIT’s website:

Some students feel so much pressure to get into the ‘right’ college that they want to make sure they do everything ‘right’—even do the ‘right’ extracurricular activities. Fortunately, the only right answer is to do what’s right for you—not what you think is right for us. Choose your activities because they delight, intrigue and challenge you, not because you think they’ll look impressive on your application. Go out of your way to find projects, activities and experiences that stimulate your creativity and leadership, that connect you with peers and adults who bring out your best, that please you so much you don’t mind the work involved. Some students find room for many activities; others prefer to concentrate on just a few. Either way, the test for any extracurricular should be whether it makes you happy—whether it feels right for you.”

Just about every college I can think of would agree.

Acting locally

Many high school students with the means to do so travel to far-flung international locations to serve people in need. I’m sure some of those kids are driven by a genuine desire to help. But there are also plenty who are being driven by what they hope will be an impressive listing on their college application, or even a compelling essay.

If you have a desire to serve, do it, no matter where you decide to go. But please don’t get the impression that you have to travel halfway around the word to 1) make a difference, or 2) make colleges take notice.

Ron Finley plants vegetable gardens in his neighborhood, South Central Los Angeles—a community he calls a “food desert” for its readily available fast food but scarcity of fresh fruits and vegetables. His 11-minute TED Talk is well worth watching, and it’s a great reminder of just how much of a difference you can make by acting locally.

Finley isn’t a high school student. But if an enterprising high school student had done what Finley has done, which includes delivering a TED Talk that’s been viewed millions of times, there would be plenty of colleges tripping over themselves to admit that kid.

Think globally, sure. But don’t forget that there’s plenty of difference to be made by acting locally.