Read an Excerpt
The following question won’t affect your GPA:
Q: Who’s happier: the overdriven, AP-inundated American high school student, or the Dayak teenager from Borneo who throws rocks at his own head during initiation rites?
A) It depends on where the Borneo kid is applying.
B) Is rock throwing weighted?
C) Ask me after November 1st.
D) What’s wrong with throwing rocks at yourself?
If you answered A, then you need to chill out about the application process because you’re a wee bit paranoid about your competition. If you answered B, then check with your guidance counselor, because chances are rock throwing is not offered as a course. If you answered C, then you’re probably locked in your room right now calculating how many more points you need to raise your SAT score to get in early decision. If you answered D, then your parents should take you in for psychological testing.
You’ve spent too many nights praying that colleges will think that the summer you fed Cocoapuffs to Buddhist monks will compensate for the 0.00005839 drop in your GPA after AP Physics junior year. Your social life has gotten so bad that you’re thinking about asking your SAT tutor to the prom. You can’t even have normal fantasies anymore—your guidance counselor keeps showing up in a black leather bathing suit, gently rubbing your transcript with hot oil.
“Who are you, anyway?” you’re asking. “I have a calculus exam tomorrow.” Before you go back to Multivariable Calculus (which was actually the real cause of World War I), let me shed a little light on who I am. Basically, I am someone who feels really sorry for you—not because you’re probably going to fail that Calc exam tomorrow—but because you are applying to college. Other than natural childbirth, waterboarding, and staring directly at Donald Trump’s hair, very few life experiences are as painful as what you’re going through right now.
I myself was once a grade-obsessed, AP-driven, SAT-defined student who rarely left the house. I spent my senior year dialing (on speed dial, of course) the University of Pennsylvania’s admissions office and cajoling some poor sucker who worked the phones into answering questions like, “Has my application been read yet? I sent it priority mail. The stamp had an eagle on it—I heard the dean of admissions really likes birds. When’s his birthday again?”
During that nightmare-inducing period before I got my thick envelope from Penn, I gained ten pounds (the extra chin looked swell in my senior photo), developed an obsessive tendency to write a “U” on Penn tennis balls, and began to sweat constantly. All that anxiety, angst, and armpit stains—was it worth it? Of course not. But when you’re in the midst of applying to college, there is very little anyone can say or do to put things in perspective. I know for a fact that the following platitudes won’t even come close to lessening your anxiety:
Life is a lot bigger than applying to college Wherever you go, you’ll be happy There are a million good schools out there Many CEOs of Fortune 500 companies went to average or below-average schools Don’t stress; it all works out in the end You don’t need a college degree to join the Mafia
I know, there are 2.6 million kids applying to college in this country and the competition is more intense now than ever before. I also understand that your parents are probably just as worried about the application process as you are. The choices are overwhelming, the application is confusing, and, let’s be honest, you’re waiting for an elderly relative to keel over so that the $200,000 price tag becomes less daunting.
It’s easy to plunge into the depths of the hell that is college admissions (it’s the unofficial tenth circle), but in truth, it’s possible to put things in perspective and adopt a healthy attitude toward applying. It’s even possible to get more out of high school than you think you can. And the more you can enjoy high school, the smaller your therapy bills will be later in life.
Part one Enjoy High School Now, Avoid Therapy Later
High school is a time of anxiety, growth, and embarrassing breakouts. In recent years, it has also become a time of enrolling in intensive Flemish language courses, becoming a nationally ranked tennis player, defusing landmines in Africa during summer break, and maintaining straight A’s—preferably by sophomore year. However, the truth is, it’s unhealthy to look at high school as a boot camp for college; it’s much better to devote those years to enjoying high school. By the time you’ve finished this section, you’ll be springing out of bed at 6:00 a.m. eager to get to class and counting down the days until September during summer vacations.
Overachiever and Loser Have the Same Latin Root
(This is something you may not have learned in Latin or Greek.) So, you’re the poster child of overachievement: the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, captain of the tennis team, esteemed Mathlete, member of Model Congress and Model UN, vice president of the French Club, tutor for underprivileged kids, award-winning cymbal player, and founder of JASA (Just Another Student Association). All this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an accomplished person. It does mean you’re going to run out of space on the activities grid on your application.
Extracurricular Overload Many high school students make the mistake of thinking that the more extracurricular activities they have on their college application, the more impressed colleges will be. But before you run off to your biweekly ping pong club meeting (even you know that one’s lame), stop and ask yourself whether you actually enjoy all these activities you’re pursuing. High school is a unique time in your life to explore your interests and figure out what kind of activities, hobbies, and academic subjects truly appeal to you. If you dedicate your entire high school career to getting into college, you’re going to squander four years of precious time running from meeting to meeting in a grim, joyless effort to appear “well rounded.” Plus, you’ll miss a lot of Saturday morning cartoons.
Let’s be honest here: not many people join the environmental club because of a burning desire to fight human-induced climate change. The following chart outlines the alleged reason why you sign up for a particular club, and the deep, dark actual reason you joined.
Drama Club French Club Environmental Awareness Club Yearbook Community Service
Ostensible Reason for Joining
You live and breathe to act.
You’re eager to develop language skills, which can become a lifelong asset.
You think it’s vital to leave our children a better planet.
You want to contribute to your class’s legacy.
You want to serve the underprivileged and improve your community.
You think unraveling incomprehensible, pointless math problems is fun.
Real Reason for Joining Talent is not required.
You couldn’t find another way to get a free trip to Paris.
The extent of your responsibility is reminding people to turn off the lights.
The school paper wouldn’t take you.
You’re hoping that underprivileged kid you’re tutoring will wash your car.
You think unraveling incomprehensible, pointless math problems is fun.
If you don’t really care about what you’re doing, the admissions officers are going to know it. You can try all you want to pretend that working on the school paper means everything to you, but if you dread going to meetings and you write articles like “Studies Show Student Journalists Have High Suicide Rate,” then your commitment to that activity will be seriously in question. You’re forced to do enough things in high school; don’t force yourself to attend meetings about things that don’t really call out to you. You’ll be doing plenty of that when you eventually get a real job.
If you’re in a club that truly interests you, your commitment and dedication to that club will naturally shine through. Let’s look at some specific tips for conveying your genuine passion.
Being Passionate About Your Passions
In the college admissions world, it’s not enough to have passions—one must be passionate about those passions. Admissions officers never tire of emphasizing how important it is for students to be passionate—about anything. It doesn’t matter if you like playing classical guitar or picking up dog excrement from the sidewalk. As long as you have passions and express how passionate you are about them, then you’ll get a gold star in the passion department.
So remember that simply liking or enjoying an activity doesn’t cut it anymore. If you’re not zealously passionate about it, it doesn’t count. There is a difference, however, between normal, run-of-the-mill passions, like playing baseball, and “we recommend intense psychotherapy” passions, like amassing a roadkill collection. Make sure your passions are within the scope of normality, and you should be fine. The following passions are not acceptable (at least on a college application).
Collecting the entire line of American Girl dolls Throwing tea parties with imaginary friends Anything that has to do with a boy band Identity theft
The only way to come across as truly genuine about your activities and interests is to be truly genuine. You can’t fake real enthusiasm. When you’re writing about your passions in the essay or discussing them in the college interview, talk about how your participation in a particular activity enhances your life. Whether it’s whale watching or bowling, it’s easy to elaborate on something you truly love doing. If you’re forcing yourself to love something, your “passion” will come across as contrived. So do what you really love—and remember that you can drop it right after you get your acceptance letter.
So how can you express your genuine passions? There are many ways, some more effective than others, as this chart demonstrates.
Good Approach Write the essay about something you are passionate about.
Discuss your passions in the college interview.
Encourage your teacher to discuss your passions in the recommendation letter.
Be passionate about what you truly care about it and let that come through naturally.
Bad Approach Write the essay about something someone else was passionate about (otherwise known as plagiarizing).
Mime your passions in the college interview.
Encourage your teacher to pretend you have passions (like speaking fluent Mandarin and amassing an international cheese collection) in the recommendation letter.
Buy an eccentric tweed coat and aviator sunglasses in the hope that this will make you look like an interesting, passionate person.
Do You Know What Your “Mosquito Populations and Arboviral Vectors Associated with Equines“
Intel Project Means?
One tried-and-true proof of a student’s passion is, of course, entering a prestigious academic competition. Among the many precollege science competitions, the Intel Science Talent Search (STS) is the country’s oldest and most elite. Winners of the Intel go on to the nation’s top colleges and universities, and they often have an uncanny ability to alienate everyone they meet at a frat party.
It’s easy to be in awe of students who churn out this kind of research while you’re still trying to figure out the difference between males and females. Don’t, however, overlook one small fact: most of the Intel contestants work with an established professor who has spent years and years making strides in groundbreaking areas of research that nobody cares about. Sure, the show-offs with projects like “Mosquito populations and arboviral vectors associated with equines” can seem intimidating. However, chances are that no one, including the founder of MAA (Making America Arboviral), knows what this means.
Taking on a project like the Intel Science Talent Search is fantastic—as long as you know what you’re talking about. But if you conduct any sort of research or enter a competition solely in an attempt to make yourself look good, it will backfire. Admissions officers will ask you about your research—usually by having an appropriate academic staff member from the college query you. So if you don’t have a genuine interest in arboviral vectors, you better bone up quickly because the arboviral vector department will be getting in touch soon.
Being a Leader—Does This Mean You Can Smack People Who Don’t Listen?
Admissions officers repeat ad nauseam how much they want students who are “leaders.” “We want to see evidence that the student has taken charge of something and can communicate effectively,” says an admissions officer from a prestigious state college in California. What does that mean, exactly? Would being the president of the debate club or vice president of the wind ensemble cut it? Or would teenage dictators of South American countries have a better shot?
Colleges’ desire for students with experience in leadership roles has caused a lot of the extracurricular mania among America’s high school students. Students vie for any “leadership role” to stay competitive in an admissions pool where other applicants are presenting themselves as accomplished, skilled leaders. But if everyone is a leader, then who are the followers? Why can’t colleges boldly say, “Since most leaders are overrated, we’re giving preference to faithful, dedicated followers”?
If you have a natural propensity for leadership and enjoy taking charge, then by all means, lead away. However, if you tend to follow the herd, then don’t force yourself to be a leader. Wouldn’t you rather be a genuine follower than a superficial, disingenuous leader? If being a follower allows you to participate in activities you enjoy and sleep more than three hours a night, know that you’re doing yourself a service. Admissions officers prefer applicants who actually have fun doing something—even if that means you’re not an officer or editor-in-chief or supreme ruler of the universe. As a former Cornell admissions officer says, “I was always more impressed with the students behind the scenes who loved what they were doing than designated leaders who were padding their resumes.” There is nothing wrong with being a mere member of a club or cheering on the sidelines for your school team—those are important functions. Plus, leaders do need people to boss around and occasionally abuse, so you might come in handy.
Too Many AP Courses Can Cause Hives
“I wish my high school offered fewer AP classes,” says Jenn, a junior from a private high school in New Jersey. “It would be nice to have a breather once in a while.” From AP Physics to AP Lunch, the number of AP courses that are available in high school is staggering. AP classes were designed to provide students with a chance to engage in college-level coursework. The original theory was that since courses like calculus and microeconomics were already so much fun, why not take them to the next level and make them even more challenging and intense—and then top off the experience with a grueling, gut-wrenching exam in May?
AP courses do have their benefits. For starters, they go beyond the standard curriculum and elevate students’ subject mastery to a new level. They offer students the opportunity to gain college credit if they receive a certain score on the exam, which could help them graduate early and save money. And last but not least, AP courses enhance a student’s transcript, showing academic initiative and ambition.