Curveball: Admitting Yourself: What Colleges Really Want

“This will look good to colleges.”

How many times this short, ambitious phrase has been articulated I don’t know. It pops up in classrooms, in counselor meetings, and in casual conversation. But at the tail-end of the college application process, I find myself questioning its veracity.

When filling out applications, I saw the various activities I had involved myself in become reduced to a mere list of extracurriculars. Many activities that I was told would “look good to colleges” didn’t even make the list. These activities weren’t fruitless – I am partial to the idea that extracurricular interests are vital to a healthy high school experience – but I found that the activities I chose to share with colleges were the ones in which I had a real intrinsic interest.

On one side of the student spectrum lie those whose sole motivation is to be admitted into their dream school. Maybe such an extreme doesn’t exist, but we all know people with these tendencies. They are the presidents of every possible honors society, they take a full schedule of AP classes and they make a habit of accumulating a number of arbitrary awards and honors. While they may do this partially for pure academic pleasure, the students in this category are mostly motivated by the benefit of their high school transcript.

This pedantic attitude is not the best way to experience high school. In fact, it might be one of the worst. It increases extrinsic motivation and stifles the ability to explore one’s personal goals and interests outside of pure academics. There is not much to be gained from this kind of work ethic other than the possible admittance letter. It is my impression that colleges, in fact, do not want students who focus solely on achieving high grades and bulking up their transcripts.

In the middle of the spectrum are students who dabble in both, who try to excel in school but are not consumed by it. I found myself somewhere in this category. While the activities I chose to devote my time to were largely self-motivated, at the back of my mind was a nagging sense of their transcript worthiness.

What will “look good” to colleges is not your ability to sign up for clubs, get straight A’s and win awards. Those aren’t bad, but a student involved in ten extracurricular activities without a deeper intrinsic interest in something is not an attractive candidate for colleges. What will be attractive are the students who are involved in the activities that sparked their personal interest.

I realize we are all often preoccupied by the future value of our current pastimes. Which by nature is not a bad thing at all. But the future should not be the main focus of high school. Let your personal interests build your resume and not the other way around.

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