I have a lot of conversations this time of year with students who want to make the most of their summer. A lot of them are wondering how to impress colleges with academic or extracurricular pursuits in their free time. I always cringe a little when students and parents ask me what more they can do that “looks good to colleges.”
It’s the wrong question to ask because colleges are trusting students to represent their talents and interests honestly on the application. So, while it’s easy to fixate on what X college wants for some direction on what to do next, it’s much more important for the quality of all students' education that they learn to pursue their genuine interests using their talents and intrinsic motivation.
Colleges care about why you volunteer your time. For many students, the honest answer is that they want to be more competitive in the college admission process. However, that totally misses the point of volunteering your time to serve a greater community.
Recently, I had one student who was debating whether they should sign up for an online summer course similar to something they’d participated in last year. The student admitted to me that this program - despite being sponsored by a prestigious university - bored them to tears. Their parents were convinced that they should participate again because, in the student’s words, it would “impress colleges.” However, this student couldn’t tell me anything at all about what they’d learned last summer. In fact, they could barely remember the topic of the week-long program! Without the right levels of engagement and self-reflection, the only thing colleges will learn about a student from seeing that they participated in an expensive program like this is that their family has the means to access such opportunities.
The number of service hours you’ve completed doesn’t say nearly as much about you as where and how you chose to spend your time. They know that students can easily volunteer their time in a million different ways, and that high schools often require students to complete a certain number of volunteer hours. They don’t know if 98 of your 100 hours volunteering at your local park were spent whining about being there, or if you showed up early and stayed late because you love lending skills as an amateur horticulturist to beautify your community. Students choose what to share with colleges on the admission application. Colleges will ask questions like "How have you contributed to your community?" for the essay portion. (MIT’s essay questions are a great example of this.) You’ll notice that colleges are asking questions that prompt students to write stories about themselves as members of a community.
My best advice is to always lead with your strengths and values. If it’s true - and I believe it is - that our experiences shape our character, then colleges will find clues in your activities as to how you will contribute to their community.
I always ask students the same question when we’re thinking about summer plans: What would you do if colleges were not looking at how you spend your time this summer?
For the student who snoozed through that fancy summer program, they’d prefer to spend as much time as possible hiking and biking on mountain trails. This student has been learning a lot about environmental sustainability and is super interested in what their neighbors can do to take better care of the planet. They had an idea in mind about creating a neighborhood initiative to learn about composting food and yard waste, but didn’t think it would be impressive enough for colleges. On the contrary! Colleges are super impressed with students who take this type of initiative to make an impact on the world and uphold their values. That kind of authenticity is golden.
Forget about the hours for a second. Look around you. What's the least you could do to make your world a little brighter?
Think about how you light people up. Are you a stellar musician? Go busking and donate the money to a community center. Champion athlete? Reach out to local community centers and see if you can support their work with helping folks stay active. Do you love science? Think about expanding your knowledge and skills by taking a deep dive into YouTube talks and tutorials.
No matter what you choose to do, remember that your growth and potential are what colleges will be looking for in your applications. They care way less about how much time you spend on something if you’re only doing it to look good for them.
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