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.

For students considering internships

Students, if you’re considering an internship this (or in a future) summer, please consider reading these two posts.

This is one of mine, to help you decide if you should seek an internship.

And this is from the smart folks at Basecamp on what they learned while hiring their first batch of summer interns. I think the entire article is interesting, but students can scroll down to the “Tips for Prospective Interns” (just about all of which overlap with my advice for job seekers).


Find a better way

The long-running format for the infomercial is to portray a frustrated soul struggling mightily to do something we can all identify with—mop a dirty floor, pry stuck brownies off a cookie sheet, find the lid to our 17th piece of Tupperware, etc. And the host then pleads, “There’s got to be a better way!” Cue the miracle solution (for just $19.95—operators are standing by!).

And while that somewhat hack premise is also a source of great innovation (FedEx, Amazon, Uber—they all found a better way than what existed before them), you don’t necessarily have to create the next big thing to find a better way. Maybe your better way is just a subtle change to a process, project, or organization you’re already a part of.

A former Collegewise student spent two summers working as a docent leading people on tours of a wildlife preserve in Southern California. Lots of summer camps and day cares would bring children to take the tours. And he learned pretty fast that their attention spans were just not long enough to survive the 45-minute tour, much of which focused on pointing out native plants.

So he took photographs of 10-12 plants and animals that onlookers could expect to see on the tour, pasted them into a document, and then created laminated copies. Whenever he gave a tour to a group of children, he gave each of them their page of photographs and had a contest to see which child could correctly identify the most plants and animals that appeared in the photographs. He turned what used to be a too-long-and-too-boring presentation for kids into a treasure hunt that they really enjoyed. And it became part of an endearing college essay about his summers leading people through the wild.

In their quest to be competitive for college, many students think about the resume splash of creating something from scratch. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, especially if founding a club, launching a non-profit, writing a play, etc. is something you’re legitimately interested in doing.

But don’t overlook the opportunities to create change and make an impact with the things you’re already doing. Every project, every organization, and every event has room for improvement. Maybe the opportunity for you to make your mark is to find a better way?