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College 4 . Us

Plan and act today so you have no regrets tomorrow...

Extracurricular Activities

First and foremost, your grades need to come first!  If your extracurricular activities are getting in the way of you getting the best grades you can realistically get, then take a serious look and decide what to keep and what to drop.  Being the president of three clubs won’t help get you into a top school if your grades suffer as a result of your extracurricular activities.

Colleges want to see passion and commitment along with achievement.  These qualities are signs of a person who can accomplish great things in life.  You should find something that you are willing to sacrifice a lot of your resources in order to make it successful.  Passion and commitment on useless things such as video gaming probably won’t do much good.  If you like video games, go into computer programming or chess.  And please don't mention that you are a big couch potato even if you are proud of it.

If you really have a special talent in fine arts, you can submit your work (e.g., a DVD of your performance or pictures of your art work) and maybe even get a recommendation letter from your extracurricular advisor (but this must not replace those from "academic" fields such as English or science).  If your advisors' recommendation letters cannot be submitted online, ask them to mail them in.

Not all extracurricular activities are the same.  Some take up lots of time and they are simply not the best choices (e.g., marching band or cheerleading).  Some are considered to be "non-intellectual" (e.g., cheerleading) so they don't contribute to your college application as much as others.  So while you should do what you enjoy, remember that there are many other factors you need to consider, and there are options to do what you enjoy.  For instance, you can do music at your church or in a community group instead of of your school's marching band, which requires you to put in many after-school hours because of all the games.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a "well-rounded" person who’s good at everything.  You don’t have to play sports or music.  But you need to do something useful outside of classes.  Leadership is good but don’t spread yourself too thin and don’t start a club just to look good.  Also don’t join 10 clubs in the senior year just to look good -- it actually makes you look superficial.

If you have limited extracurricular activities because of family financial needs or a physical disability, make sure you explain that on your application or essay, or explain that to the interviewer.  Family needs are not your fault, and oftentimes it may make you stand out from among comparable applicants.  You can, in your essay or during the interview, discuss how the special circumstances help shape you in ways that are not likely to happen if your situation were not so unique.

Leadership Positions

Leadership positions are thought to be very critical for admissions to top universities (assuming your grades are near top-tier also).  What really matters is what you do in those positions and the demonstration of your leadership skills, not which elected positions or how many you got.  In fact, having too many extracurricular activities or leadership positions raises doubts about your commitment and involvement.  You can be the presidents of ten clubs and not do anything.  For the top universities that interview promising students, the interviewers will try to find out your actual responsibilities and achievements in those positions.  It's better to focus on a few and really put in your time and effort, than do many for the purpose of filling up the application form.

But leadership is a lot more than just holding an elected office.  In fact, true leadership does not require having an elected office.  It’s really about using your ability to influence others to achieve a shared objective.  This means that motivating others and keeping them engaged is a major part of the effort.  In some cases, you have to help resolve internal and external conflicts and issues.  These all demonstrate your leadership skills.

Recently I wrote the following for a presentation I gave to a “leadership development” class.

There are many different definitions for "leadership."  I personally prefer the definition of "using one's influence and resources to achieve a public goal that's greater than one's own self-interest."  This means that:

o Leadership is a state of mind, a personal commitment, and concrete actions to fulfill that commitment.  Providing leadership does not require a leadership position.  One can have influence and resources without having formal titles of leadership.

o One's influence comes from one's credibility, proven ability, past track record, presentation of the logic, and persuasion.  This means that leadership is built on a solid foundation of one's background.  Without it, one cannot effectively sustain his influence because he'll be challenged at the first sign of trouble.

o One's resources comes from his own and his ability to access those of his institutions, connections, and other entities.  One does not have to be wealthy to have usable resources that can serve the greater goal.

o The "public goal that's greater than one's own self-interest" may go against the self-interest of the person, and so this implies a passion and commitment to make economic sacrifices when needed.  There is no true leadership if there's not the passion and commitment to a greater cause than one's own.

So, everyone can provide leadership.  It's a matter of choice, not position.

A suggested video to watch: Rich Warren on a Life of Purpose

Work Experience

Work experience are great both for your college application and your personal development.  You learn many things from your work experience – work ethic, responsibilities, interpersonal skills (both to deal with colleagues and customers), and the value of money.  You will have a different appreciation for things once you realize how much work it takes to earn enough money to buy that iPad.

Would doing menial tasks actually hurt one's image?  The answer should be NO, and here is why.  The aforementioned lessons can be learned from almost all types of jobs.  Students are never seen less favorably when they have jobs that are considered menial to adults.  Yes, they can be more impressive if they have jobs that have major responsibilities or require advanced skills, but those jobs are hard to get, especially for high school students.  Students also learn a lot from observing how adults do their jobs, even though they don't get to do those tasks themselves.  Therefore, what you learned is probably more crucial than what you actually did.

Many parents do not allow their kids to work for a variety of legitimate reasons, such as safety and wanting the kids to focus on schoolwork.  Others may have reasons that are more pride-driven – not wanting others to think that they are parents who cannot provide for their kids.  There's one fact that many parents ignore when they consider a kid's request to work: kids work to learn, not to earn.  So parents: get over those concerns and instead try to figure out how to help your kids get the most they can from their work experience.  If you are really concerned about the impact on schoolwork, then let them focus on summer jobs.  There are no real good reasons for not allowing your kids to work.

If your parents own a company, does it count if you work there?  Well, the short answer is: "not as much."  You just don't get the same level of demands you'd get from an outsider, and also you will be treated differently by your peers at work.  I've heard of doctors trading their kids so they work at the other person's clinic.  That is an improvement over working for your own parents, but still you may be treated more generously than you would at a total stranger's company.  Take the challenge – work for a complete stranger and learn something.

Unpaid internships are also good, particularly if it's with a firm in a field that you are interested in exploring.  Your internship may also become a springboard for a future job.  Or maybe you learn enough about that field that you decide not to pursue it as your career.  Either way, it's good for your career development.

How about volunteer work?  Most volunteer works are fairly easy-going.  Host organizations tend to be very lenient about the volunteers' attitude and performance, and they tend to not entrust volunteers with important work.  So while volunteer works look good on your college application, paid work experience are probably more preferable than volunteer work.  The key is to explain your experience and how that adds to your understanding of the world and makes you a more mature person.

Your employer or supervisor can also write recommendation letters for you.  Sometimes their letters can better illustrate your work ethic and personal characteristics than those from your teachers.  They can always fax in their recommendations if theirs cannot be submitted online.

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