Let’s give up the crutch “it looks good for colleges”
Here’s the one of the biggest crutches in high school—”you should do this because it looks good for colleges.” This is the ungrammatical crutch students and coaches use to recruit students to their team, and in so doing, debase the value from the organization they are trying to recruit students to.
Here are some examples from two activities I’ve been involved with, debate and robotics.
First debate—it’s pretty common for both coaches and debaters to talk about how good debate looks for college, and I’m not really trying to dispute whether this is true. But take a look at how committed many debaters are. The novice 9th grade debaters in my homeroom talk about debate almost non-stop. One of them recently started reading Heidegger (as a 9th grader) in order to better understand a particular argument in debate. Debate itself is crazy fun and challenging. It’s an intellectual chess match at 400 words per minute that teaches you more than you could imagine about current events while picking up minor in philosophy on the side. And best of all, you get to do this with your closest friends from school, competing against many of your friends from around the nation. Debate also requires you to work fantastically hard, helps you develop incredible skills as a researcher and teaches you to think on your feet like nothing else. But if you look back at the list of skills debates develops and requires from dedicated participants, I think there is a far better case to be made that it is these skills and traits that “look good for colleges.” Aside from the small number of schools who actively recruit for their debate teams, there isn’t a huge demand for debaters on college campuses. But there is a huge demand for hardworking, quick thinking, superb researchers who are willing to read Heidegger for fun.
Yes, debate may be a signifier of some of these traits, but most of the time, if you’re just doing it to “look good for college” your chances of sustaining the level of effort required to develop the skills I mentioned above, or to reach a real level of accomplishment—earning a bid to the Tournament of Champions— are basically zilch.
Second, robotics. I’m starting this year as an assistant coach to our FIRST robotics team and this was my first year attending the Kickoff Event, which is basically a live broadcast of a bunch of famous people (Stephen Colbert, Presidents George W Bush and Clinton, Will I Am, and others) talking about how important FIRST is for promoting STEM and jobs. Then, the founder of FIRST, Dean Kamen came on and said a few very important things—FIRST ins’t about preparing kids for STEM careers. It’s about really geeking out with some crazy cool stuff—can you hack Microsoft Kinect to navigate a 150 pound robot around a field and program it to take jump shots like Jordan? Can you work together with a large team with to solve a very complex problem in a super limited timeframe? Mostly, it’s fun—because STEM is fun, and ultimately, STEM makes our world a better place. Kamen best takedown of the idea that activities like FIRST are about preparing students for STEM careers came when he said “I don’t think the Wright brothers or Edison were innovating just to get jobs.”
I wish he’d stopped there, because that was a grand slam takeaway message. But then he went on to say something along the lines of how good FIRST looks for colleges. Really? You’ve just introduced an event with Stephen Colbert. You had kids get up at 7 am on a saturday to fill an college auditoriums around the world to watch this. At my venue, students were practically jumping out of their seats when the feed was cutting in and out as the competition was being announced; they are super pumped—do you need to bring out the college carrot to try to entice them more? I don’t think so. FIRST is awesome. I know of few activities that draw students into a greater sense of teamwork or that get students to take on more challenging problems. And you’ve never seen students as passionate about something as when you watch them arguing the merits of a crab drive versus a tank drive for our robot. After the announcement, my students spent another full 6 hours brainstorming design, and I basically did little more than watch in amazement as 30 kids maintained a level of focus and intensity you rarely see in traditional school.
You don’t need the college carrot to sell your activity if it is really worth doing. And more often than not, if students are just doing it for college a nebulous external reward a year or more away, this incentive won’t be enough to propel them to develop the skills and reach the level of achievement that will really grab the attention of colleges. Colleges have seen plenty of barely committed debaters and FIRST robotics members who do little more than stand around and contribute nothing to their team. They are easy to spot, since their recommendations, essays, or interviews fail to show any real devotion to these activities.
This brings me back to my central message—as a student, if you find yourself doing something because it “looks good for college” and that reason alone, walk away. Chances are, you’ll never muster enough energy or commitment to distinguish yourself in this activity. At the same time, continued participation in this activity is sapping you of the vitally important time you need to discover your real deep interest, the thing that you will pursue with vigor and dedication. With a lot of hard work lead, this deep interest can lead to something truly meaningful (and fun) that will help you develop abilities you never imagined, and likely do a far better job of capturing the eye of college than anything you felt forced to do. And you’d be amazed at what colleges notice. I’ve seen students interested in everything from raising cattle to selling truffles develop these interests into extraordinary accomplishments that led to great success.
This advice isn’t limited to colleges, either. You’ll get much further in life if you work on figuring out your own right path, rather working to please others. You aren’t likely to be very good at predicting the specific classes or activities you need to do to earn admission at a particular school or job, but if you follow you own interests, you are likely to develop the ability to learn, the work ethic and the passion that will help you to lead a life with meaning.