I just finished reading an interesting book called "Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?" It wasn't written for high school students trying to get into college; but if you took its lessons and applied them to your high school life, I think you'd find yourself happier, more fulfilled, and more appealing to colleges.
Here's the gist of the book: If you want to have a successful career that you enjoy, it's not enough to just work hard, follow instructions, do what your boss tells you to do, and avoid mistakes. That's fine if you do that, but it won't make you indispensable. A boss can find lots and lots of other people who will follow instructions and do good–but not indispensable–work.
Indispensable could mean being the best sales person who makes millions for a company. But it can also be the grocery checker who's so warm and enthusiastic that customers love her and specifically come to that store because of her. It could be the waitress at the coffee shop who remembers customers' names and their favorite drinks and makes a great impression on everyone. It's anyone who loves her work, puts her whole self into it, and in the process delights customers and co-workers. It's these people who are getting and keeping the best jobs today because they're indispensable. They can't easily be replaced.
Being indispensable isn't all about talent. It's about attitude, investment, and energy that you bring to your job. You don't have to be the CEO of a company to do that, and you don't have to be the club president, the editor of the school newspaper, or the captain of the football team to do it in high school.
If you're on the student government and end up with the job of collecting tickets at the door for the homecoming dance, you can do that one of two ways. You can show up on time, sit where you're supposed to sit, collect the tickets, not make any mistakes, and leave when it's over.
Or you could show up a little early to help set up. You could suggest that the table be moved to a different spot, because you can see that its current location will make it difficult for people to make an orderly line once the big crowd shoes up. You could smile and enthusiastically greet people when they arrive. You could tell people how great they look (and be especially complimentary to those kids who don't hear that kind of praise very often). At your break, you could offer to go get some water and snacks for everyone working the table with you. You could figure out ways to keep being valuable once most of the students have shown up, like picking up the tickets that students have dropped on the ground, checking in with the chaperones to see if they need anything, and offering to run out for more ice when you see it's running low. And when the dance is over, you could be one of the last to leave, staying to help clean up and offering to help carry the tables back the cafeteria where they came from.
Which of those two approaches makes you more indispensable to the student government? Which makes a bigger impression on the people around you? And most importantly, which makes you feel better about yourself when you go home that night?
Taking tickets is not a highly-visible job. It's not something you'll list on your college applications. It's not going to win you any awards. There are few reasons to do it if you expect a tangible and immediate reward in return.
But you have a choice about how to approach your role for that one night. You can phone-it-in, do what you're supposed to do, and not make any mistakes. Or you can use it as an opportunity to actually do a great performance, to bring your whole self to the role, to lead by example and show people that you're the kind of person who brings a lot to any job you do, whether or not it's important and visible.
It's this kid, not necessarily the ones who have the most impressive titles, who's going places.
When I've written about kids who are active and engaged in class, those are the kids that teachers find indispensable.
When I've written about kids who bring a positive attitude and work ethic even if they're not the best player on the soccer team, those are the kids that coaches find indispensable.
When I've written about the kid who does community service not to chalk up hours but because she cares deeply about the mission of the organization, or the kid who doesn't get the lead in the school play but volunteers to run the lights, or the water polo player who leads the team's fundraising drive, or the kid who doesn't hold an office in the Spanish club but makes authentic tamales everyone loves for the meetings, or the kid who does scientific research with a college professor because he just has to know more about physics, those are the kids that are indispensable.
So, are you indispensable? If you're not, what could you start doing today to become that way?