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?

Leadership is “Follow me”

When I was a sophomore in high school, Sizzler began a promotion called “Steak and all-you-can-eat shrimp,” which was exactly what it sounds like—along with your steak, servers would continue to bring you as many deep-fried, breaded shrimp as you dared to eat.

An enterprising student at my school saw that as a perfect opportunity for a class fundraiser and organized a “Junior Class Shrimp-A-Thon.” Instead of selling candy bars, washing cars, or recycling any of the other same-as-every-other-year fundraising drives, participating juniors each solicited sponsors based on how many of those shrimp they could hopefully gulp down.

The class raised nearly $4,000, led by two football players who each ate over 100 shrimp (if memory serves, neither of those shellfish-guzzling warriors were physically able to show up to school the next day).

The student behind the Shrimp-A-Thon didn’t hold a formal office in his junior class. But everything about his fundraiser demonstrated real leadership. He had to see the opportunity. He had to sell people on it and convince them to follow him. He had to organize the participants, work with the local Sizzler to host the event, and track the funds raised. And most importantly, he had to take responsibility for a new idea that might not work.

He didn’t get to list “Junior class president” on his college applications. But he could describe the initiative he took, the impact he made, and the leadership skills he displayed in doing so.

The term “leadership” gets thrown around a lot during college admissions discussions. But it’s important for students and their parents to understand that merely holding an office (or starting a club two weeks before you apply to college) isn’t actually leadership. Real leadership is the ability to envision something in the future—a change, a goal, a better outcome, etc.—and then convince people to follow you. Elected officials can (and should!) do those things. But you don’t necessarily need a title, an office, or even authority to do it. See where you want to go, then rally people who want to follow you. If you can do those things, you’re leading.

The Shrimp-A-Thon originator? He went on to study history at UCLA and later completed medical school. Today, he is a physician and the director of a community ER (who would likely discourage patients from eating buckets of deep-fried shrimp).

Return expectations

Parents, if you’re considering spending the money to send your student to an expensive summer program at a prestigious college, and doing so because you hope it will improve his or her chances of admission, please read this Washington Post piece first.

I’m not against a student with the means to attend a summer program at Stanford, Harvard, or any other prestigious college actually doing so. But just as you would with any other investment, please make sure you have realistic expectations of what you can—and cannot—expect in return.

Need summer planning suggestions?

High school students can have a summer that’s not just relaxing and enjoyable, but also one that’s productive and helps them get into college. Collegewise counselors Tom Barry, Colleen Boucher, Sara Kratzok, and Liz Marx have revised and updated the Collegewise Guide to Summer Planning. And best of all, it’s still free for students, parents, and counselors. You can get your copy here.

I hope you enjoy it and share it.

Activity currency

One of the reasons you might participate in activities is for the accolades you’ll receive if you achieve enough success. You might be elected to an office, or receive an award, or earn a distinction–any one of which should make you proud. And colleges always appreciate success like that.

But what if you’re expending the effort without those traditional measures of success? What if you aren’t on the leadership team or in the starting lineup or on the docket for the awards ceremony? Should you still continue?

I’ve written before that quitting gets an often undeserved bad rap, particularly for high school kids. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should jettison an activity just because you aren’t being recognized. There are plenty of other ways an activity can pay you back. Here are a few.

Access (to people, places, or opportunities)
Improved mental and/or physical health
A sense of fulfillment, pride, or other positive emotion
Service to others
Work experience (and yes, actual money)

If an activity isn’t giving anything back, no matter how much you give, then by all means, consider quitting. Rededicate that time and energy to something that doesn’t just take from you.

But remember that trophies, distinctions, and other awards aren’t the only viable returns for your activity investment. Insist on payment of some kind, but be open about the particular currency.

Emphasize the “I”

Most college admissions officers, even those who’ve never been near a football field, know about life as a high school football player. They’ve seen applications with descriptions of the activity. They’ve read essays about players’ experiences. The hard work, the double days during summers, the camaraderie with teammates—they’ve heard, read, and learned all about it.

That doesn’t devalue the experience at all for the players or the readers. But you don’t stand out just by doing and sharing what thousands of your fellow football players around the country have done. The same could be said for editors of papers, chess club treasurers, student body presidents, and any of the activities that exist on most high school campuses. When you say, “Here’s what I’ve done,” you’re adding yourself to a large and, on the surface, very similar group.

Unless you change “Here’s what I’ve done” to “Here’s what I’ve done.”

As you commit yourself to activities you care about, always think about what you can do that goes beyond the basics of showing up to practice, meetings, rehearsals, etc. You are not like every other football player, editor, musician, writer, programmer, singer, worker, or leader. You are what’s different. The more you that you bring, the more indispensable you’ll be.

If you want to stand out when you apply to college, emphasize the “I” now, and when you apply.

Impact doesn’t need a spokesperson

Students (or their parents) often ask us this question about letters of recommendation in college applications:

Can I submit a letter of recommendation from someone who’s not my teacher or counselor (like a coach, a boss, a pastor, etc.)?

The answer is yes, if a college specifically invites you to do so. But it’s far more common for colleges to ask for letters from teachers and counselors. Most colleges clearly state in their application instructions what they want you to send them. Ignoring those instructions or deciding that you have a better way is one of the surest ways to annoy an admissions officer and even hurt your chances of admission.

But you don’t need a letter of recommendation to prove that you made an impact.

Did you organize the fundraiser for the basketball team?

Were you promoted to assistant manager after only four months at your part-time job?

Did your pastor specifically ask you to become a youth group leader?

Then say so.

Mention it in the “Activity” section of the application as part of the description for the involvement. Share those relevant impact details if you write about the activity in an essay. When your college interviewer gives you an opportunity, give her the backstory about how you ran the fundraiser, or what you did that made you stand out at work, or what your pastor said when he chose you to run the youth group.

A letter of recommendation is just one way to describe an impact you made in an activity. Concentrate first on making an impact in whatever you’re doing. Be so good, committed, or just plain positive that people would notice if you stopped showing up. Then use the pieces and parts of an application to share not only what you did, but also the specific ways you made yourself indispensable.

When you make a real impact, you won’t need a spokesperson to describe it.