Extracurricular activities

Community Service: How is it really valued?

Yet another article is making the rounds aimed at amping up the pressure on students and their families. Headlined "Community Service Work Increasingly Important for College Applicants," it appeared in the US News and World Report Money section. Promoting the results of a "scientific report," it states that "admission officers place a high value on a student's long-term commitment to a cause or organization." Of course, that's true at face value. But the article goes on to imply that that "cause or organization" must be community service.

As these articles usually are, it's confusing and provocative, offering advice such as this: "Applicants need to take care in how they position their volunteer activities." The implicit message: You had better have community service on your list of extracurricular activities or you will suffer consequences.

Deans do place a high value on consistent commitment to a cause or organization -- or activity, pursuit or involvement -- but that does not translate to community service specifically being necessary to add to the list of everything else students are doing. It is one of the many ways students' lists of activities can reflect their commitments and passions and is not, for most colleges, a stand-alone by itself.

Media Madness

Headlines we hate: "Volunteering. A Secret Step to Make You Really Stand Out." First of all, there are no secrets in college admission. And, in fact, this particular canard has achieved the status of myth it's been around so long. The truth: NO ONE ACTIVITY is necessarily valued more than another by admission offices.  

Math and Magic

Students -- and parents! -- who think there is a "resume" of extracurricular activities that colleges are looking for should take the time to read this Chronicle of Higher Education story about Persi Diaconis, magician-turned-Stanford mathematics professor.  It's a great illustration of how simply following your deepest interests can lead to success in unexpected ways. One caveat: While Diaconis' tale is compelling, we're not recommending you run away from home.  No need to take things that far. But that hobby you're obsessed with? You never know where it may lead and what contribution you may make with it. Click here to read the story.

Steve Jobs on Boredom

Steve Jobs has been much on the minds of many since his death last week. What made him who he was? What in his past paved the way for his vision and his ability to realize it? Wired writer Steven Levy has posted an insightful piece on Jobs and we were particularly interested in what he had to say here: Jobs usually had little interest in public self-analysis, but every so often he'd drop a clue to what made him tick. Once he recalled for me some of the long summers of his youth. I'm a big believer in boredom," he told me. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, he explained, and "out of curiosity comes everything." The man who popularized personal computers and smartphones -- machines that would draw our attention like a flame attracts gnats -- worried about the future of boredom. "All the [technology] stuff is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too." The intersection of Steve Jobs and the importance of downtime is also one that College Admission contributor Denise Clark Pope of Stanford University's School of Education often uses as a thought experiment to provide an "Aha!" moment for students and parents.

More on Essays: What are you like when no one is looking?

Kudos to Laurie Fendrich, blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education and faculty member at Hofstra University, who weighed in on the exotic essays front, as well: “In pushing college applicants to write college essays proving how “extraordinary” they are, we get application essays about the summer spent hiking in Nepal, the semester abroad learning Chinese, the Saturdays spent at soup kitchens, and the long hours at the violin. But all these extraordinary extracurricular activities are almost always artificially concocted. They’re a result of the savvy, ferocious ambitions of students, their parents and their guidance counselors, all of whom desperately work together to make sure the student looks “extraordinary.” “But what we really need to learn about an applicant is what he or she is like when no one is looking. What is the student like in a quotidien sense? In Katherine, we see a young woman who hadn’t ever done anything glamorous with her summers, but had instead spent day after day, for most of her young life, tending cows—and not because it would make for an interesting subject in a college application essay (although it probably would). She tended cows simply because she grew up in a family where she was required to do serious chores.