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.


Titles alone don’t make the leader

I don’t know anything about high school junior Dave Husselbee’s school activities. But this kid has some real leadership skills.

Husselbee brought five identical Hawaiian shirts with him to school on picture day, then convinced over 60 students—and faculty—to wear the shirts in their yearbook photos, a prank that apparently involved a complex system of shirt-sharing as photographed students passed their floral-printed garb on to the next class.

He not only got the science department chair to don one, but also garnered some nice praise from his school principal. As she points out, the fact that Husselbee got both the students and the faculty involved is what makes this prank noteworthy.

Now, my message here is not that students should start orchestrating pranks to show leadership skills. For every harmless prank that’s lauded for its fun and creativity, there are 50 others that range from misguided to criminal that then need to be explained on college applications.

But leadership doesn’t just mean assuming office in a club and then sitting at the front of the room during the meetings. Leadership means seeing a place you want to go and then convincing other people to follow you.

Maybe you become a club president and help that group achieve new levels of success. Or maybe you organize group outings for your orchestra to go watch your community symphony. Maybe you wrangle volunteers to pick up trash at the beach. Maybe you find eight other students who also wish your school had AP Spanish and then convince a teacher to do an independent study with the group.

You don’t have to be a leader to get into college. But if leadership is something you enjoy or aspire to, think about how—and more importantly, where—you want to lead people. Then get busy leading. Don’t assume that a title alone makes a leader.

And here are a few suggestions from a past post about how to lead without holding a leadership position.

Be a good teammate

Arun shares this (previously shared on the College Counselor Facebook page) from the women’s rugby coach at Quinnipiac University. While written for athletes hoping to play in college, many of the observations have direct crossover to non-athletes applying to college as well.

For example (though I do acknowledge the irony in the writer scolding a student for poor punctuation, but then making numerous errors herself, which I’m leaving unfixed here):

Our staff explained to your parents that we would prefer to connect with you directly, but they continue to respond on your behalf. This will be a red flag for any coach, so please be aware of this feedback being a possibility from any of your other options.

When you visited the campus with your parents, the first thing I noticed is that they [your parents] did most of the talking for you.

In the second half, when you scored I noticed you waited for the other players to huddle around you and celebrate. In contrast, when a teammate scored, you retreated to your position without acknowledging or congratulating them.

You added much depth in the scoring category with some impressive runs but when you made mistakes you became vocal and eager to point out where your teammates needed to improve.

Getting recruited isn’t just about athletic ability, and getting into college isn’t just about your GPA and test scores.

Parents, let your kids drive the process. Students, show the initiative to take the wheel. And remember that whether or not you’re an athlete, being a good teammate goes a long way.