If you listen to conversations teenagers have about getting into college, you’ll often hear questions about whether or not their course schedule is challenging enough, if their SAT scores are good enough, which extracurriculars will look good to colleges, and so forth.
Those are all understandable concerns due to the disproportionate emphasis placed on the importance of where a kid goes to college and how that supposedly determines their life’s outcome. For the most part, those concerns also come from a place of good intentions, because they suggest that students care about their futures.
But instead of asking if a choice you make will “look good to colleges,” what if you instead ask yourself, “What are the things I can become my best at that would be make someone else’s life better?”
Decisions motivated by a search for a step-by-step formula to please colleges don’t work out in the end
We commonly hear that universities want to admit students that demonstrate leadership. So everyone scrambles to find quick ways to show off their “leadership” skills to colleges, whether it be serving on student council, being captain of the debate team, or being class valedictorian. All while taking five AP courses and playing three sports, of course.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those things. But the motives behind them matter. It’s pretty obvious when someone is trying to figure out which things to put on their college application that they think will most impress the admissions committee. Remember, any moderately experienced college admissions officer has encountered hundreds of thousands of applications in their lifetime.
There is no silver bullet
Going back to the idea of becoming your best and making a positive impact, those are not things you can do easily nor quickly. If something is easy to define and to attain (e.g. formal leadership titles supposedly meaning you’re a great leader), then it’s not that meaningful. Have you ever been in a group (organization, classroom, team, etc.) where the designated person in charge is not the most respected or sought-after when there is a problem?
Admissions officers look at your entire applicant file as one entity and try to figure out what you have to contribute to their community and brand. It’s not a matter of having a certain extracurricular or not and strictly evaluating accomplishments in a vacuum.
People are always looking for the “right” answer or a step-by-step manual they can blindly follow. There’s not one right answer (although there are definitely many wrong answers). That’s not how the college admissions process works, and that’s not how life works.
If you’re looking for a straightforward formula, you’re going to be looking for a long time.
Leadership is a process, not an event
Leadership is developed and demonstrated not in one concrete moment in time (e.g. through attaining formal titles) but as a process over the long haul. That process includes the way you treat people, set an example for them, and lift them up.
If you have been making other people’s lives better in everything you do, you can do the same thing on a university campus. That’s value added, and that’s valuable to universities and their brands.
So instead of letting how you choose to spend your time in life be determined by what you think may or may not look good to colleges, a more helpful way forward might be instead to focus on developing the strengths you already have, as well as continuing to put yourself in positions to experience new things.
How do you become your best and be sought after instead of looking to please?