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Let’s give up the crutch “it looks good for colleges”

January 7, 2012

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Frank Lock permalink
    January 7, 2012 9:37 pm

    From very early in my teaching career, when students would be challenged by an activity and perhaps frustrated, I would simply tell them they needed to persist because the activity makes their brain better. A good, well trained brain will always serve a person well. Especially in college!

  2. Sam permalink
    January 8, 2012 10:37 am

    This sums up so much of my frustration with (especially) upperclassmen, and the (seemingly) hundreds of activities they are involved in which keep them from committing solidly to any one of them! Well-said.

    • January 8, 2012 11:36 am

      The sad thing is that the student trying to simultaneously pursue a dozen different things just to look good for college will, in the end, find themselves looking far worse than the student who deeply and thoughtfully pursues a few interests. And furthermore, that student will find themselves exhausted and disappointed at the end of their senior year, with very little real accomplishment to point at, thinking all their “hard work” was for nothing. The thoughtful student will have likely have a number of meaningful accomplishments to point to turns out, will likely be far less stressed and exhausted, ready to take on the next challenges after high school with enthusiasm and vigor, regardless of how the college process turns out.

  3. January 8, 2012 10:49 am

    Well said, John. Though as a 4th – and last! – time parent in the dreaded college hunt this year I am increasingly mindful of the hysteria generated not only by parents and peers but by college counseling offices; and the phony view that college admissions is about pure merit and character. At all turns we hear that there is a need to ‘distinguish’ yourself and ‘sell’ yourself. My daughter fortunately has paid little attention to any of it and just went about her business. She has an unremarkable academic record, by her and our admission. However, she is a great athlete. So far she is 1 for 1 in early rolling admissions, with a ‘merit’ grant, and has been recruited to 2 good schools where we think she’ll get in.

    This is worth mentioning because it doesn’t matter how ‘good’ the college is, they still need a goalie, or a shortstop, or a bassoon player, or better representation from Alabama, or more money from that legacy alum family that has been so generous in the past. In other words, getting into competitive colleges is never and has never only been about true academic merit and fat resumes. It’s about filling a niche the college values. As a friend who worked admissions at Tufts once said to me: I have 50 flute-playing, AP French-studying, community-service doing girls applying this year; which one do I pick? She tended to pick for an oddball reason in that situation just to get variety – took fencing as a sport, lived abroad as a kid, was adopted.

    The sooner we get out of the prep school habit of thinking that this is all about a super-meritocracy, the better.

    • January 8, 2012 11:29 am

      You’re right. I do think there’s a totally phony way that students and college counselors can try to “sell” their stories, and increasingly, I think admissions offices are getting tuned in to this. But at the same time, it’s easier than even to put together applications that tell compelling, authentic stories that really do help admissions officers to pierce the fog of AP scores and activity resumes and see unique student within.

      And the special interest private schools never want to talk about, and perhaps plays the largest role of all is that of legacy and development. For most colleges, the money niche is valued most of all.

  4. Roger Wistar permalink
    January 8, 2012 11:07 am

    As a teacher in a field that has somehow become toxic for college — computer science (?!) — I have to say BRAVO for this post.

    • January 8, 2012 11:24 am

      The thought that Computer Science is somehow toxic for college admissions is absolutely bewildering to me. Few fields allow for young students to achieve creative, unique and meaningful innovation that will make a difference in the world. Just look at the wave of young iPhone app developers, for one example. Perhaps this is why Peter Thiel is paying kids $100K to drop out of college and instead work to start their own businesses—he knows their talents might be wasted by following a prescribed track through four years of college with with not much flexibility.

      Personally, I don’t fully agree with Peter’s idea, and though I agree college isn’t the right path for everyone, I think it does have a lot to offer anyone interested in spending some time seriously exploring the world of ideas and figuring out how to live a life thoughtfully.

      I think if computer science, or any other pursuit isn’t gaining enough of the college attention, I’d put a fair share of blame college admissions offices not willing to invest the time and resources to thoughtfully learn the stories and accomplishments of their applicants and appreciate the full context of their environments. Too often colleges rely on simple heuristics (AP calc BC > AP Calc AB > AP stat) that really aren’t that useful for getting to know an applicant, determining how he/she will take advantage of the college’s opportunities and the difference he/she will make in the world.

      At the same time, this should also be a challenge to students, teachers and college counselors to do better jobs of telling our stories. What makes your particular interest compelling? How are you working to grow within it, and take on new challenges, etc.

  5. January 8, 2012 1:57 pm

    Excellent points John. I had a similar problem with my Statistics class because everyone was signing up for Calculus since it was “better for college”.

    I am saddened that FIRST thought it was necessary to resort to baiting people with college application bling. Like you said the fanaticism and fervor of robotics needs no hype.

    Congrats on signing up to be a mentor, it is a life changing decision that constantly fuels one’s conviction that students are extremely capable with the right resources and support!

    • January 9, 2012 6:33 am

      I, too, am always saddened when students take calculus over statistics merely because the former is perceived to be “better for college.” The same applies to countless other curricular decisions made by students, families, and educators every day and every year. As my students once again close in on the time to make course choices for another year, I worry that far too many will select what “looks good” over what will help them think, explore, create, and grow.

      I look with glee at the eagerness in my 2nd grade daughter’s eyes as she hungrily devours new concepts and want to cry when she refuses to try an alternative angle I suggest because “it’s not how we’re supposed to do it.” I can typically sneak her into the idea by coming from an angle she doesn’t expect, but unnecessary rules, building resumes, ticking off the graduation requirements, and other “guidelines” silently begin to seep into students as young as my daughter and persist long into high school and beyond.

      Yes, it’s about good thinking, but I believe the type of learning John describes is also about the fundamental core of creativity. Creative minds don’t (can’t!) follow such straitjacketed, overly simplified heuristics.

  6. January 9, 2012 11:06 pm

    In high school, I rowed crew because my sister did it, it would make me healthier, and for college admissions. It taught me that life is too short to do something you don’t love. I don’t regret it, but I stayed away from crew in college. Whenever someone asks me why, I say “I wanted my life back”. That ends the conversation.

    The other activity I did in high school, which I really passionately enjoyed, was FIRST robotics. I credit it with getting me into a school of engineering – not because I could name drop it, not even because I wrote an essay on it, but because it helped me find what I wanted to do with my life. I was thrilled by both the complex problems of design and the exacting challenge of precision lathework. I was excited not by the promise of college or jobs but by becoming a producer of a useful manufactured good, as opposed to moving boats around. FIRST told me I wanted to be an engineer – the first step to being accepted to an engineering college.

    I never programmed for FIRST in my four years – I walked into their group as a freshman, saw they were trying to open a file in a program, and walked out after five minutes to go back to the shop. But it did encourage me to take AP Computer Science as a senior, which I inhaled. I had 90 minutes with a Java compiler every other day and they weren’t enough.

    Now, it’s my sixth FIRST season and I’m underwhelmed, or perhaps burnt out. I’m working on iOS apps with a compiler that’s available whenever I want it, and taking care of other odds and ends of productivity. So tonight, my first opportunity to be in a machine shop in nearly a year, I decided not to go. I knew we’d be hashing out design ideas and checking the kit of parts, and working on image processing algorithms for four rectangles, and meh. Let the kids have their fun. It’s their turn to learn something about the universe, each other, and themselves.

    Sorry for the journal entry.

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