…even if you think you don’t have time and are already a senior …even if you believe you aren’t good at anything
Table of Contents
- So You Want to Get Into the Ivy League, Huh?
- So Who is This Guide For, Exactly?
- The Most Dangerous College Myth: A Well-Rounded Student
- The Biggest Obstacles to Getting Accepted
- How Students Are Judged
- How Extracurriculars Are Judged
- How to Avoid Playing the College Admissions Lottery
- Stop Doing These: The Extracurriculars and Other Things That Aren’t Worth It
- The Greatest Foe to Superstardom: Mismanagement of Time and Priorities
- How to Identify a Passion and Attain Superstardom
- Prestigious Programs to Join
- Mentorship: The Shortcut to Excellence
- How to Build a Monument Project to Impress the Stuff Out of Colleges
- How to Optimize Your Summer for Maximum Impressiveness
- FAQs: Addressing Common Objections
- Next Steps & Work With Me
So You Want to Get Into the Ivy League, Huh?Do you dream of waltzing through those majestic iron wrought gates at Stanford, MIT, Harvard, one of the other Ivy League schools, or any elite caliber school? (Yes, I know Stanford and MIT are not part of the Ivy League, but I’m grouping these schools together with their top-tier peers.) That’s incredible, and I applaud your ambition. I get it. The allure is undeniable. A world-class school with prestigious Nobel Laureates and distinguished faculty, amazing programs and facilities, and of course the name brand recognition that comes from one of these elite schools. But what does it take to get in? There’s a mountain of “advice” out there, often contradictory and often too vague or generic to be helpful. Most of all, this advice often comes from counselors who haven’t personally gained admissions into the Ivy League or another top school. I am a relatively recent Brown University alum — young enough to have competed in today’s much more selective admissions environment, but old enough to have gained a decade of experience from consulting hundreds of students. I don’t say this to brag, but to point out that it’s much easier to preach something than it is to walk the talk. I’ve done the latter, so I know what’s realistic (and just how hard it is) for students. I can empathize with what students today are going through. But even then, I made many mistakes (because no one ever revealed to me what I should have been doing back then). These mistakes prevented me from achieving even higher, such as Stanford or Harvard, both of which rejected me. I wished someone had pointed these things out to me before it was too late, but now, I want to reveal those things to you throughout this guide. Truthfully, I think you already know what elite colleges want:
- Stellar GPA filled with a rigorous curriculum of APs, Honors, and/or IB classes
- High SAT/ACT scores and SAT Subject Test scores
- Top-notch extracurriculars, prestigious awards, and incredible talent
- Memorable personal statements (i.e. college essays)
- Enthusiastic letters of recommendation
- Demonstrated interest (did you go on official college tours, attend school representative meetings, email the school with thoughtful questions?)
- Interview performance
- Legacy (did you parents, grandparents, etc. attend the same school?)
- Family background (education level, occupation, etc.)
- Financial status (many schools claim they are “need-blind” when it comes to financial aid, but money still plays a factor)
- Mega-donor (donate $10 million+, but even this isn’t as straightforward as simply plunking down the cash)
- Prestige boosters (A-list celebrities, children of prominent political figures, etc. who can boost the reputation of the college)
- Special connections
- Race/ethnicity (not directly, but say you’re Asian and your app seems nearly indistinguishable from the other 100,000 Asians applying, then it’s going to hurt your chances)
Again, COLLEGES DO NOT WANT A WELL-ROUNDED STUDENT!I cannot emphasize that enough. Understanding that statement is the crux of building a successful application. Doing everything in your power to NOT become well-rounded is the unequivocal best strategy to getting into your dream school. But what exactly is the problem with well-rounded students, and how did this myth begin? It began as a distortion of the truth: colleges want a well-rounded class. Let’s say a school accepts 2,000 students this year. Ideally the school hopes, say, 100 of these students will be the top engineers in the world, another 100 will be the best artists, another 100 will be world-class Olympic or professional athletes, another 100 to be the elite Grammy-winning musicians, and so forth. As you can see, the entire make-up of the class is quite diverse: engineers, artists, athletes, musicians, and so on. The class is well-rounded; however, each individual student is not! Each student is a superstar in his or her respective field!
Specialization is the winning ticket!Think about it from the colleges’ perspective. If you, as an admissions officer, are presented with two students, one who is world-class at what he does (say creative writing) — even if that student has huge weaknesses in other areas such as math — and another student who is decent at everything, but not the best at anything, who would you pick? Being well-rounded means you are so-so at everything, a jack of all-trades, master of none. That means this student is much less likely to make the school famous in anything. To really make a difference in this world, to boost the school’s reputation, you want to be the TOP in your specific arena, pushing the frontiers, making innovative discoveries and advancements to impact society. You want to be a king or queen of your field, NOT a jack of all trades. If you’re the next Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking, or J.K. Rowling, it doesn’t matter that you are terrible at certain things. If you are specialized in something, truly dedicated yourself to your craft, and have achieved greatness in your particular passion, you will be flagged as a “Heck yes! Admit!” A specialized superstar is much more likely to make the schools proud, which in turn, boosts their prestige, which leads to more funding and attracts other top talent, which then continues the cycle. Colleges want to influence the world in positive ways, and the best way they can do that is by attracting and mentoring specialized superstars who go on to change the world. So the best application strategy is to figure out your personal passion, then develop it hardcore and achieve as much as you can within that field. Combine that with top grades, stellar test scores, strong college essays and recommendations, and you’ll have yourself a winning ticket into the gilded ranks of elite colleges! It’s hard enough to get great grades and test scores on top of a mountain of extracurricular activities, but let’s talk about what REALLY makes it so hard to gain admissions these days. First, let’s look at the statistics.
Admit % 2016
Admit % 2004
- The Internet
- Cookie-cutter students
- Misconceptions about what’s important to colleges
The golden rule is to identify what everyone else is doing, then do the opposite!That’s how you stand out, duh! Hopefully it goes without saying, don’t stand out in a negative way. If no one is getting arrested, don’t go start drug-dealing, ya know? I’ve worked with hundreds of students for the last decade, and I’ve seen this sea of sameness in so many different schools – public schools, private schools, even homeschools. The number one complaint I hear from my admission officer colleagues is that they can’t tell students apart. Why is everyone doing piano? How come everyone is doing sports? Why is everyone volunteering (when it’s painfully obvious this isn’t their passion)? Some schools require a certain amount of community service hours to graduate, but I see countless students put in far beyond the minimum number for no advantage in college admissions because their volunteering is too basic. Clones, clones, clones! This is not to say any of these activities are bad in and of themselves. But when your overall profile looks strikingly similar to the next student’s, you’ve become a cookie-cutter student. Now the admissions committee have no special reason to pick you over your virtually identical friend. You’re just not memorable. Admissions officer spend a grand total of about 5-8 minutes scanning your entire application, so if nothing immediately grabs their eye, you have now been relegated to what I call admissions purgatory. This is where you are just as qualified (or maybe even slightly more so) than the other students trapped in the same purgatory, so admission officers begin whimsically saying yes or no. There’s no real rhyme or reason. Maybe this student was a basketball captain, and the officer is a huge basketball fan, so that student gets a leg up. This is why you hear stories of students slightly less qualified than another student get in. To the admissions committee, all these students are generally the same, so it doesn’t matter to them which one they choose or deny. It’s the admissions lottery, the worst place to be, but I’ll show you how to avoid it in the next few pages. But let’s move onto the third major obstacle to college admissions. Misconceptions about what’s important to colleges. Perhaps the biggest issue that stops your college dream right in its track is not knowing what colleges want, at least not the extent of each factor’s importance. Sure, GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and extracurriculars are critical, but how much? Which door should you take? Hmm… I’ve run into too many students who severely focus their energies on the wrong things. Perhaps the greatest misconception is how important AP classes are. Students often feel they need to take 10+ APs by the time they graduate, so they devote so much blood, sweat, and tears into these tough classes. Maybe they even ace them all and earn a perfect 5 on every AP test. Sounds like an amazing student, right? WRONG! These students work themselves to the bone to achieve these amazing grades and test scores — to the detriment of other things that are at least equally important! Yes, top colleges want to see you take a rigorous curriculum, which means taking several APs and Honors classes to prove that you’re willing to challenge yourself and able to excel in tough academic environments. However, I’d encourage you to think about thresholds and the law of diminishing returns. Say you’ve already taken 8 AP classes. Another 1 or 2 APs will make ZERO difference to colleges. That’s because at around 8 AP classes, colleges already consider you someone who likes to academically challenge himself or herself. You’ve checked off their “AP” box already, so additional APs beyond that provide little to no gain, even if you get an A in these extra classes. Remember, admission officers are spending only about 5-8 minutes on your application. They are evaluating you holistically (that means, as a whole person). They aren’t going to debate the merits of 8 APs versus 9 APs. To them, the student who has taken 8 versus the student who has taken 9 are both stellar students, but the person who took 9 (or even 10, 11, 12+) is not considered “more stellar.” They are virtually EQUAL on the academic front. However, the student who overloaded his or her schedule with tough APs is at a severe disadvantage on OTHER fronts. The exorbitant time and stress it takes to do well in an AP class is time you can’t spend on your extracurriculars, developing an amazing specialty and passion. For elite colleges, extracurriculars are the main differentiators between one stellar academic person and the next. At the level of top colleges, it’s EXPECTED you have an amazing GPA with a rigorous course load, but if that’s ALL you have going for you, you are doomed. It’s almost 100% guaranteed rejection from the Ivy League, despite your perfect 4.0 unweighted GPA. Of course, a weak GPA is pretty much instant rejection (unless you are a special case, such as a mega-talent in something, a mega-donor, the child of the President, or something). Typically, a great GPA is simply the price to play, but it’s not enough to win. You need an amazing extracurricular profile, in combination with top academics and SAT/ACT scores and other smaller factors, to earn admission at the nation’s top schools. Not understanding this will cause you to waste all your time and effort on things that don’t matter. Another thing students typically don’t truly understand is just how critically important the SAT/ACT is. Sure, students know the test is important, but not really JUST HOW IMPORTANT. Hint: it’s a lot more important than you think. It’s worth about two or three full years of your entire GPA! When I instruct students for the SAT or ACT, I tell them upfront before we start that they need to spend a minimum of 7 hours of productive study time per week. This is actually a very reasonable amount (1 hour per day), yet I’d say 90% of my students don’t do it. That means they’re going to take insanely longer to reach the scores they want. What could have been accomplished in 2-3 months drags into 6 months or more. Sure, some students are lazy and unmotivated. But the bigger issue I see are “excuses,” priorities that students THINK are more pressing and important than preparing for the SAT or ACT. Yet, did you know that the SAT/ACT accounts for around 25% of the admissions weight? Your GPA is around 25-50% of what colleges care about, which makes the SAT/ACT worth anywhere from literally HALF to ALL of your entire high school GPA. You’re likely spending thousands of hours across all of high school to earn your GPA, yet you can’t find 100-200 hours to study for the SAT or ACT? Does. Not. Compute!
Hour for hour, there is literally NOTHING BETTER you can do to improve your college admission chances than preparing for the SAT/ACT (until you hit your dream school’s average score or higher).In no other activity, bar none, will you find it possible to improve your admission chances so drastically and so (relatively) easily than prepping for the SAT/ACT. When students don’t do their SAT/ACT homework, I hear all sorts of excuses about how they were slammed with school: calculus test, history paper, group projects. Or worse, I hear how they had basketball practice or a swim meet. Or how they needed to go volunteer for community service to help a friend out. All of those pale in comparison to the importance of the SAT/ACT. Even if doing your SAT/ACT practice means not doing so well on one particular test or assignment in school, even if it means getting kicked off your basketball team permanently, it would be worth it if it allows you to improve 100 points on the SAT or 3+ points on the ACT. Think of it this way. If you’ve already put in 2 or 3 years in sports (which generally means hundreds, even thousands of hours), another 100 hours there isn’t going to move the admissions needle one bit. You already got credit for your sports, so 100 more hours there makes precisely 0 difference to colleges. But it robs you of a very precious 100 hours you could have used to study for the SAT/ACT, which usually means 200-300 point improvement (SAT) or 5+ point improvement (ACT). Now THAT makes an incredible difference! 100 points higher on the SAT (3 points on the ACT) roughly DOUBLES your chances of admissions. The same problem holds true for your GPA. One particular test or assignment isn’t going to change your GPA drastically, unless it’s a mid-term or final exam. Even then, it will probably only affect your GPA by 0.1 or 0.2. It’s just ONE class out of dozens of classes. I’d take a 0.1 hit to my GPA any day if it means an extra 100 points on my SAT (3 points on my ACT) because the downside of a slightly lower GPA is far less detrimental than the massive upside of a vastly improved SAT/ACT score. Now, I get it. School is important. Sports are important. You don’t want to let your teammates or coach down. But I think the REAL reason students almost always choose to focus their time on less important things is because those other things are immediate. The calculus test is tomorrow. Sports practice is today. Volunteering is this weekend. In contrast, the SAT/ACT is weeks or months away, so it feels like you still have time. But this is faulty thinking that KILLS so many students. There will ALWAYS be another school test, another sports practice or game, another extracurricular event. You can’t wait for that rare week when your schedule is light enough to finally study for the SAT/ACT. It’s like knowing it takes 30 minutes to drive to school before school starts at 8am but still being in bed at 7:45am. Sure, you’re not technically late yet – you still have 15 minutes. But you are AS GOOD AS LATE. There’s no way you’re going to roll out of bed, brush your teeth, get ready, drive to school, and still arrive on time. This is what happens with students — sure, the SAT/ACT is still weeks or months away, but if you’re not consistently studying, the test is AS GOOD AS FLUNKED. I see people trying to cram in last minute studying one week (or even mere days) before the test. At that point, seriously, forget about it. You have no chance. Plan to retake. People severely overestimate their willpower and motivation too. They say, “Oh, now that I’m on spring break with no school work to do, I will spend 8-10 hours a day studying for the SAT.” Please, be realistic! If you aren’t the type of person who can sustain 8-10 hours of work on a normal day, there’s no way in hell you will suddenly pull out the discipline to do that for a full week leading up to your test. That’s why consistency is key. If you really cannot spend 1 hour a day studying, then at least spend 3-4 hours on the weekend to make up. But if you keep putting test prep off in lieu of less important things like schoolwork or extracurriculars, you are hurting your admissions chances tremendously. If you truly recognize that the SAT/ACT is worth two to three years of your GPA, why wouldn’t you put in as many hours as possible into acing the test? In two years, you’ve likely put in 2,000 or 3,000 hours into school, so why is it so hard to put in 100-200 hours into prepping for the SAT/ACT? Bottom line: understand the big picture of what you should prioritize and don’t get bogged down by the things that matter far less. I’ve talked a lot about WHAT students are evaluated on: GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, etc. But now I want to talk about HOW students are judged. No doubt you’ve heard stories about this amazing student with awesome stats and activities get rejected by a college, yet another student who seems objectively weaker in all areas get accepted by the same college. Why is this? The answer lies in HOW colleges actually evaluate students. Colleges do this by comparing students against similar peers, NOT the entire application pool. That generally means you are being compared against your friends and classmates from your same high school, or at least your local area. You are not being compared directly to students from a faraway city or state. It may seem unfair that one student has a higher GPA, a more rigorous course load, better SAT scores, and more impressive extracurriculars than a student from another high school, yet the second student is the one who gets accepted, not the first. Let’s analyze why this happened. The first thing you must realize is that colleges evaluate students on their life context. This is why applications ask for information such as parents’ education level, occupation, and income level. This is why they ask where your parents and siblings attended college, if at all. This is why they ask for demographic information, such as your ethnicity, city of residence, and so forth. All of this data forms your life’s context. In essence, this is the environment in which you were raised. Clearly, students raised in a better environment with greater resources, finances, and opportunities have an easier time to achieve more — so colleges expect greater achievement from these students. And obviously, students raised in worse environments, say a gang-ridden territory full of drug dealers and criminals, will find it much harder to do well in school and find amazing extracurriculars to excel in — so colleges expect less of these students. So what colleges are really judging you on is how you fared in comparison to your similar peers, those who grew up with generally the same resources and in the same environment as you. By and large, that means your classmates in your specific high school (and nearby high schools). You want to be WELL ABOVE AVERAGE compared to these similar peers. Be the tall giraffe. If everyone in your class has strong grades and SAT scores, then you should have even higher. If tons of people in your class are participating in the same general activities – marching band, sports, volunteering, etc. – then you need to do something a level beyond that, something more impressive and unique. If a student from a run-down, unsafe neighbor is above average among his peers, even if his achievements are objectively worse than yours, he may gain admission while you don’t (because you are just average or below average among your peers). For top private high schools and stellar public high schools, for example, the typical SAT score may be at least 700 in each subject. So if you get a 670, it’s going to look terrible for you. Another student may only get 590 on his math section, but if that’s the top of his class, then he’s going to look amazing.
Colleges recognize how crucial a role one’s life context plays in one’s achievements, so they take that into serious consideration.If you come from a single parent family whose mother already works two minimum wage jobs, so it turns out you have to find a part-time job to help your family, then colleges will appreciate and reward your effort. From that angle, a lower GPA and lower test scores make sense, so colleges will cut you some slack. Even though this student may have accomplished less than you, he accomplished more relative to what he was given. Colleges love seeing students who can rise to the occasion. Here’s another analogy. Let’s say there’s a stock trader who is given $1 million to start. By the end of the year, he has $1.2 million, a profit of $200k. Not bad! But another investor is given only $100 to start, and by the end of the year he has $1,000, which is a $900 profit. Who do you think is more impressive? Yes, the $1M guy earned far more, but it was only a 20% gain. The $100 guy earned far less, but he managed a 900% gain! Clearly, the second guy is massively more impressive. This is the same line of thinking colleges use when evaluating students. The major point I’m trying to make is this: you are judged against your local peers, especially those from your high school. So make sure you are well above average if you want a shot at the Ivy League or other elite colleges. If the average GPA at your school is a 3.7 with 7 APs, then you want to try to get 3.9 with 8 or 9 APs. If the average SAT score at your school is 1400, then you want to get 1500 or more. That’s really all there is to it. Be so far above average compared to your local peers that you leave no question in the admission officers mind that you will excel with whatever resources you’re given. That’s the type of student they want. Colleges do their best to nurture their students, but colleges want to see explosive growth in these students. If you can’t achieve greatness in proportion to your given resources, then the student who can is going to get the acceptance letter, not you. There’s one more thing I want discuss here: how, specifically, are extracurriculars judged? Many students and parents ask me which activities they should pursue: basketball? Speech and debate? Starting a business? Math Olympiad? Lab research internships? The truth is, it doesn’t matter so much which specific activities you do. What matters is HOW you do them. Crying is what you’ll be doing if you don’t have any hobbies. Activities are judged on three main criteria:
- Dedication – how many hours and years have you put into this activity? The more the better (until it detrimentally affects other things too much) because it shows commitment. The very BEST in a field always spend tremendous amounts of time honing their craft, so colleges want to see evidence of this dedication. So if you can be a part of a club or project for several years, that’s better than one year or just a few weeks.
- Leadership – most students are mere participants, not leaders. They join the activity, but they just do what they’re told. This is utterly useless. You want to take initiative and demonstrate leadership, even if it means stepping outside the normal responsibilities and being creative. Top colleges want the innovators, not the followers. They want people who don’t simply follow the rules but make the rules up.
- Impact – how much positive contribution does your activity make to society? Even if it’s a personal talent such as art or writing, you can use that to better the world. But if what you do is completely selfish, then there’s no point.
- Hell yes, admit!
- Seems well-qualified, so maybe admit.
- Hell no, definitely deny!
Students stuck in the “maybe” category are subject to the admission officer’s personal whims and moods.In fact, some deans of admissions have actually gone on record to admit that if they were to re-decide their admitted class, the accepted students would probably be different. That’s why college admissions can feel like a lottery — because it is for these middle-tier students. Honestly, admission officers don’t really care if they take or accept these students. They are more like fillers, since the automatic yeses have already been accepted. Since these mid-tier students all generally look the same, taking student A over student B doesn’t make much difference to the college. That’s why you’ll often hear about a student getting accepted into one or two top schools, but that’s about it. If he were truly a superstar, he would be getting, 6, 7, or even 10 offers from Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the entire Ivy League. Nearly ALL of the elite colleges will extend offers of admission because they are clamoring for your superstar talent, drive, and passion. You are a rare breed, so just like so many dream of the Ivy League, now the Ivy League is dreaming about you. There is no lottery here. This is as sure a bet as possible. The goal is not to be stuck in this middle category at all. You want to elevate yourself to superstardom, so you get an automatic yes! Superstars don’t just get one or two yeses by elite colleges. Of course, achieving superstar status is not easy. You may not actually make it to this stratospheric level, but you should try your best. As Norman Vincent Pealthe once said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” That’s the right mentality to adopt. In the coming sections, I will be covering practical suggestions on how to become a superstar. But before that, I want to discuss what NOT to do. These are things countless students pour thousands of hours into for no real boost to their admission chances. Remember, the overall strategy I’m advocating here is simple: develop excellence in a particular specialty. This is going to be your hook or personal theme, the identity that admission officers will remember you by. To that end, there are common extracurricular activities I see too many students pursuing that do not serve this purpose. For Ivy League caliber schools, these activities are nearly worthless from a college admissions perspective. They act as huge time and energy sucks that prevent you from achieving superstardom. STOP in the name of Stanford, hah!
Okay, fair warning. What I’m about to say might make you angry, like REALLY angry. That’s okay – get offended and disagree fervently. But I’m never the type of person to sugarcoat something this important. Take a moment to think about the my logic, and see if it truly doesn’t make any sense.Remember, I’m not saying these activities have no value in your life. I’m saying they have little value from a college admissions standpoint for top colleges (but sometimes, you gotta spend some time doing things for your own enjoyment, not to get into college…but think long and hard about whether you really need to spend as much time as you’re currently spending). I’m also not saying you definitely CAN’T do these things. If you truly enjoy them, then go for it, but take them to the next level. Do something far above and beyond what others typically do in the activity. Furthermore, does it mean that if you do any of the following activities that you can’t get into the Ivy League or top schools? Of course not. I’m just trying to say that there are better uses of your time, such as other activities that will return more bang for the hour. Note: the activities I mention below may not impress Ivy League caliber schools, but they become more important for less selective colleges, such as USC, NYU, Carnegie Mellon, UCLA, even Berkeley. The biggest time-wasters include: 1. Sports. This is probably the most nefarious time waster. Students love sports because they’re fun, they’re healthy, they build community and maybe even some leadership. But to be blunt, sports are a terrible return on time investment. You can easily spend 1,000+ hours in 3 years going to sports practice and games. Just think of how many hundreds of thousands of other students are in sports, just like you. Think about how many tens of thousands of other students are Varsity players and team captains. There’s nothing inherently special about these roles. And if you’re not even one of the leaders, then you definitely have no chance of standing out. Unless you’re going to become the next Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, or Tiger Woods, sports are just not impressive. If a college or professional recruiter is not actively knocking on your door, trying to sign up, then that’s a sure sign you should stop pursuing sports clubs. You need to be a nationally ranked player for sports to be worth it (or least the very least, a top state player). If not, go ahead and enjoy sports on your own as a healthy hobby with friends, but please don’t devote 2-4 hours a day on it! Yes, the sheer amount of time you spent shows massive dedication, so you do get some credit for that on your college apps. But you could have some dedication AND excellence in something else, so for 99% of students, what they’ve accomplished in sports is not impressive. With 1,000 hours, you could have easily mastered something truly unique or achieved something else that would have been truly impressive. 2. Music, choir, marching band, color guard, cheer or pep squad. Playing an instrument, singing in a choir, being part of orchestra, marching band, color guard, or cheer/pep squad are very similar to sports. Hundreds of thousands of students participate in these activities, and the time-commitment is absurd. I know students who spend almost every weekend every school year practicing or going to competitions. Students spend even more hours after school practicing. But for what? Even if you are the drum major (or at the very least, a section leader), there are thousands of students who hold the same rank. This is a very generic activity, which is precisely what makes it unimpressive. And if you’re simply a participant, not one of the leaders, then it’s a complete waste of time. That may sound harsh, but it’s the truth. You may enjoy the activity and the camaraderie with friends, but you should enjoy those in your spare time, not devote thousands of hours to this activity. Even if you lead your team to win regionals or nationals, it’s only moderately impressive — because the activity is not very unique. Similar to sports, music playing and earning level 10 piano certifications or whatever is not very impressive. Too many students hold this distinction, yet it costs you soooo much time and effort to achieve. Unless you are going to become the next Hans Zimmer or Yo-Yo Ma, music is not a wise use of your time for college admissions. I know the great personal benefits of music, and for those reasons, you can pursue it, but when it comes to college apps, music is exceedingly generic. For music to be worthwhile, you need to be putting on shows at Carnegie Hall. You need to be signed by a major recording label. You need to have been nominated for Grammys, or better yet, won some. For 99.9% of students, that’s not going to happen. 3. Volunteering, especially mission trips, Habitat for Humanity, or teaching English abroad. Community service is another one of those things that most students are not truly passionate about, but it may be required for graduation. So they just do it. I’d simply do slightly more than the bare minimum number of hours required, but that’s it. Maybe 20-50 hours more at max. That’s because most volunteering is a highly generic activity. Most volunteering consists of low-level work, such as picking up trash, conversing with patients in a elderly care facility, gathering supplies at a hospital, or serving food to the homeless. These are not world-changing contributions, so the impact level is considered low. And if you’re merely a participant, not the one who coordinated the whole volunteer event, then you show no leadership or initiative either. Most students who volunteer participate in random, unrelated events too: cleaning the beach, caring for veterans, serving soup at a homeless shelter. There’s no cohesive story, so it hardly shows any passion or focus. My advice? If you truly enjoy volunteering, make the events all centered around a particular theme, such as social justice protests. Become the founder of the club and organize the activities yourself. Or focus on a unique volunteer experience, something that will challenge your world perspectives, such as teaching literacy at a juvenile prison. But if you find yourself simply tagging along to pitch in, well…don’t. There are better ways you can make an impact on the world that will be much more impressive to colleges. Many students also feel joining their church or temple for a mission trip for a week or even a month or two shows compassion, humbleness, and willingness to work. It does to some extent, but it’s not very impressive. In fact, many of these mission trips that are now seen by colleges as glorified vacations disguised as “community service.” Pay $5,000 to go to Africa to help build homes for displaced children and teach them English. Things like that are not impressive, not only because so many students are doing this, but also because it does not show any real leadership. Unless you are the one founding a non-profit organization and coordinating everything and consistently organizing these events, you are not doing much for your college apps. If service is truly your passion, then you need to take it to the next level (many levels higher, actually). You need to be like that teen who founded a social justice foundation as a freshman, delivered a TEDx talk about activism for teens, and was invited to the White House to speak with the President of the United States about such issues. He got into Stanford – but it’s clear why. He took “service” to the umpteenth level. 4. Shadowing internships or entry-level jobs. Not all internships are equal. For many students, their internship consists of little more than shadowing someone: a doctor, a business executive, a computer programmer, whatever. But if all you’re really doing is observing, then that’s not the least bit impressive. You need to gain some actual experience and contribute something to the hospital, company, or organization. Many of these places don’t trust teenagers enough to give them any real responsibilities. That’s why so many interns end up simply fetching coffee, ordering meals, organizing supplies, mailing and filing papers, or photocopying. These are menial tasks that do not impress colleges and understandably so. Anyone could have done these things. The same idea goes to entry-level jobs, such as a cashier, stock boy, or fast food worker. Thus, doing these activities hold very little water. Yet, they suck up incredible amounts of time. Now if your family situation calls for this, that’s a different story. If your family literally cannot survive without your financial contribution, then doing a job like this is admirable, and colleges will actually cut you some slack for not achieving greater things. However, if you are part of a middle or upper class family, entry-level jobs are generally not meaningful for college apps. If you are going to take one of these positions, then you have to get creative and ask for greater responsibilities. You need to take initiative and propose ways you can help, to expand your current role. If you are only doing grunt work, you might as well quit and find a better use for your time. Jobs and internships that really matter are ones in which you actually contribute something substantial. For example, one student who got into Stanford was coding for Intel. Another student who got into Columbia was helping code for a video game developer. And another who got into UC Berkeley was working directly with algorithms for actual client marketing campaigns. I don’t mean to say your job must be in the tech field, but I am trying to illustrate that these job responsibilities are far more impressive than merely grunt work. 5. Summer classes or programs. There are really only a few reasons you should consider summer class/programs. One, you flunked a class and need to retake it. In that case, you absolutely NEED to do that. Two, you want to pursue an advanced or specific topic that isn’t offered at your school. Most high schools only offer the generic subjects: English, math, science, history, etc. If you’re interested in something more obscure, such as archaeology, then you can pursue it at a local community college or through a 4-year university. This shows curiosity and willingness to challenge yourself academically, since it’s a college class. Three, you want to take a more advanced class the next year at school, and taking a prerequisite class over the summer allows you to enroll in that advanced class during the normal school year. The problem with most summer classes, however, is that they are nothing special. If it’s a standard class that doesn’t allow you to advance to a higher level during the school year, then there’s no real point in taking it. It’s just a time-filler without any actual benefit. Similarly, students love signing up for summer programs at various universities over the summer: art, photography, entrepreneurship, computer science. Here’s the problem: the barrier of entry is low. Anyone with the money can typically join these programs by filling out a simple application. Even if the program is selective, they often aren’t THAT selective. There are only a handful of truly prestigious summer programs, such as Research Summer Institute or Young Engineering and Science Scholars, usually with extremely low admission percentages (around 5-10%), that can be worth it. But if it’s easy to get into the program, then you’re simply becoming another follower, another participant. It shows little initiative on your part because all you really do is whatever they tell you. Anytime you find yourself simply doing what you’re told, that’s a good signal that what you’re doing probably isn’t worthwhile. You want to be different than others, so joining the same types of programs that thousands of students do isn’t doing you any favors. There’s also a great misconception that going to pre-college summer programs at selective universities like Stanford, Harvard, or wherever will give you a better shot at admissions into their actual undergraduate program. But it does not, at least not necessarily! Going to Cornell for a summer program doesn’t make it easier to get into Cornell, unless you happen to meet a professor or influencer there who will vouch for you come admissions time. But going to Cornell CAN hurt your chances at other similar universities who may feel that you aren’t as interested in them. Why did you go to Cornell, not Brown, for summer, for instance? Brown may then feel you aren’t that serious about Brown because you’ve demonstrated more interest in Cornell, so Brown may not want to accept you as enthusiastically. Sure, you demonstrated interest in Cornell, so Cornell may be happy about that (and I guess it helps your chances in that sense), but actually boosting your application’s merit just because you went to a Cornell summer program? Not really. Better to spend your time and money pursuing more creative, unique, and meaningful projects and passions. 6. AP classes you know you can’t handle, especially ones that don’t support your specialty. Many students enroll in an AP class because they see all their friends doing it. They join because they feel that taking less than their friends is bad. Sure, taking less than average does hurt you, but you have to consider the trade-offs. If taking this extra AP class in a subject that truly doesn’t excite you means you will find yourself struggling tremendously and spending extra time preparing for the class, then it may not be worth it. Think of all the dozens, if not hundreds, of hours you could save by taking the regular class or a different class altogether. That extra time can be funneled towards your true passion, becoming an expert in it, achieving greatness there. The benefit and impressiveness of that FAR outweighs the disadvantage of not taking that AP class. While you should aim for a decent number of APs (as many as your school offers, up to 8-10 max for the Ivy League), anything more gives you diminishing returns. If you’ve taken no AP classes, then your first AP class gives you a huge boost to your admission chances. But if you’ve already taken 8, then taking a ninth doesn’t help you much at all. That’s because admission officers consider the rigor of your curriculum holistically. If they see yourself generally challenging yourself with AP classes, which you’ve proven by taking 8, then additionally challenging yourself doesn’t really change their impression. It’s like someone telling you they are the #7 nationally ranked tennis player in the world versus someone telling you they are #6. Both them are at the top of their game, but #6 isn’t any more impressive. Sure, #6 is higher than #7, but at such a high level, you are simply impressed. Period. You can’t comprehend the slight difference between #6 and #7, so psychologically, you are equally impressed. So taking an extra AP class or two when you’ve already taken many is a waste of time and energy. In fact, it’s HURTING your admission chances by stealing time away from what you need to be doing to stand out — building a stronger extracurricular profile. Challenge your extra time into achieving greatness in one of your activities instead. 7. ASB/student government. If you’re the class president (or better yet, the ASB president for the entire school), that might be worth something. It shows a bit of leadership. But think about how many thousands of ASB presidents there are applying to college every year. It’s a little special but not that special. If you have a lower position, then it gets even less special. The problem with ASB is that it sucks up so much time to provide relatively low impact. Yeah, you’re helping plan the school rallies, school spirit week, prom, the school fundraiser, or whatever. You spend dozens of hours attending meetings or helping out at the float building days for Homecoming. You’re out there selling cookies and t-shirts to raise some money. All of this is great for building community and relationships with your friends and classmates. It may even help you develop a relationship with your school principal, who may write you a recommendation letter later (infinitely better than a rec letter from a school counselor). But ultimately, you could have easily spent all those hours to achieve something far more meaningful. The goal is to achieve depth, not breadth. It doesn’t take much talent to organize a school rally, or man the bake sale booth, or help build a float. Almost anyone could do it, and that’s precisely the problem. The barrier of entry is low, so your contributions are bigger in title (ASB president) than in actuality (building a float, etc.). Now, if you truly want to make this activity work, you would need to take initiative and make some real change in the school. See some injustice going on? Propose and implement an initiative against bullying. See that students are overwhelmed and depressed by academics — implement a new policy in school (by working with school administrators) for a de-stress day full of fun activities and dogs to pet or something. Recognize that the school isn’t offering enough to support budding entrepreneurs? Organize an assembly and invite some top entrepreneurs to put on workshops or talks to the student body. Notice that none of these things require you to be ASB president to do. Any student could step up and do this. Leadership is not about a title; it’s about action. If you find yourself doing routine things — attending meetings where it’s more talk than action, performing grunt work like posting on social media, or generally doing a task that any friend or peer could easily take over without much training or skill — then it’s a clear signal you’re wasting time. If you enjoy ASB because it models real government, then why not actually pursue a real political internship? Actually work with Congressmen or political leaders. Help research reasons to change a policy, help draft up a proposal, help organize a march or protest. Don’t simply file papers or fetch coffee — ask for greater responsibilities or just do them on your own. 8. Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts. This was a hard one for me to put down because I myself was a Boy Scout. I’ll speak about Boy Scouts, but the same holds true for Girls Scouts and Venturer Scouts. I was in scouting from first grade (Cub Scouts) to twelfth grade, and I loved it. I achieved virtually everything possible in scouting, except for the highest honor – Eagle Scout (because I didn’t do an Eagle Project, but that’s another story). I do regret not becoming an Eagle, but not because it lowered my admission chances. It didn’t really. Growing up, I heard many parents and friends repeat the idea that earning the rank of Eagle Scout would be amazing for your resume. But there are far too many Eagle Scouts, and too many troops make it far too easy to obtain the rank. I’ve met dozens of freshmen and sophomores, or even younger, who are already Eagles. Seriously? Do you really think you’ve become a great leader at 13 or 14 years old? Colleges know this, which is why becoming Eagle Scout isn’t all that special anymore. Sure, it helps a little — but not enough to be worth the thousands of hours you’ve devoted to achieving it. Think of all the patrol and troop meetings you’ve attended, all the campouts, jamborees, camporees, and other events you’ve participated in. All the community service events, all the board of reviews, and all the court of honors. This activity adds up to an exorbitant amount of hours that ultimately isn’t that impressive to colleges. Why? Because it’s a pretty predictable path to become Eagle. You just follow the path, do the work, earn the merit badges, and whatnot — voila, Eagle Scout! There’s no unique or deep impact on society. Mostly, this is a more-or-less guaranteed honor as long as you do the work; it’s not particularly competitive at the top levels. Eagle is more helpful for mid-tier schools. Now, would I have given it up if I had to redo high school? Absolutely not. As I said, I loved the scouting experience. Some of my fondest memories came from scouting, but it didn’t do that much for my college app. What I would have done differently is attend fewer meetings and fewer campouts. Yes, your scoutmaster will probably be upset and chide you for your lack of commitment, but so what? Maybe it means you won’t achieve Eagle. But the real value of scouting is not the Eagle rank, but the experience itself. I’d do it for for fun, for friendship, and for the personal challenges, but NOT for college. The litmus test for whether something is worthwhile for super selective colleges is this:
- Are you a leader, or will be soon, in this? If not, don’t do it.
- Is the barrier of entry to doing this low? If so, don’t do it.
- Will spending an extra 50-100 hours in this activity help me achieve something significantly more (such as becoming team captain or drum major, becoming nationally ranked, or getting published in a reputable science journal, etc.)? If not, stop doing it.
- Is it easy for others to understand how you achieved it? If so, don’t do it.
It’s always easier to do things that are more fun, such as attending sports practice, especially when it FEELS productive (but it’s not), than real work.But part of this is also because most people don’t have a strong sense of exactly how important various factors are in college admissions. Here’s how top colleges typically weigh each factor:
- GPA and the rigor of your curriculum: 25-50%
- SAT/ACT: 25-50%
- Extracurriculars: 20-30%
- College Essays: 10-30%
- All other factors (rec letters, interview, legacy, demonstrated interest, etc.): 5-15%
- Oh, I had a Calculus test to study for.
- Oh, my teacher assigned us three projects this week.
- Sorry, I had a lot of work preparing for the upcoming school rally as ASB president.
- I had to go to a golf tournament (or marching band competition or volleyball game).
So, What Is An Appropriate Passion to Pursue?First, I want you to rethink what’s acceptable to pursue as a passion. Many people believe that certain activities, such as video games, are inappropriate for college. Sure, recreational video gaming is nothing special, but what if you took it to the next level and became a competitive, nationally ranked player? What if you won international gaming competitions? If that’s not realistic, then what about taking that video game passion and putting it to good use by exploring video game design? What if you wrote your own video game app and popularized it? What if your work got you noticed by a game design firm that hires you for a couple years, allowing you to flex your programming skills and imagination? Too technical? What if you got involved in the marketing side or did extensive research into the psychology of gaming – why is it so addictive, how does it become viral, does it build community, and what are the consequences (negative and positive) of gaming? Maybe you could partner with a psychologist and get published in a legitimate scientific journal. Or maybe you enjoy working on cars in your garage. You could partner with a local autoshop and start a program teaching people to fix or upgrade their cars. You could organize speaker series by bringing in some local experts to discuss car design (it doesn’t need to be someone who is a top executive at BMW or something, just someone in the industry – for example, I have a friend who works designing motorcycle helmets. He and his colleagues may make perfect speakers. Reach out to your parents’ networks and see if there are any connections). Or maybe you love to sew, make handmade crafts, or creating designs. Start your own Etsy store and sell these. Scale it to 1,000 or even 10,000+ sales or more. Selling a handful is not impressive. Selling a few hundred is okay, a thousand is better, and even more is starting to become impressive. I know someone who dropped out of her high-powered law job to sell beautifully designed calendar and journal templates on Etsy, which now brings her over $100,000 a year. You don’t need to get to that level, but the point is, even simple ideas can work if you’re passionate. There was once a teenage girl who sold bottle cap jewelry and is now a millionaire. That’s impressive. Again, even if you don’t reach six or seven figures, that’s fine – but reach a level that it can be seen as more than a fun hobby. Maybe you love watches? One of my students started his own premium watch companies, sourcing manufacturers in China and coordinating with contacts in various countries. He promoted his product on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media outlets. He was even offered a spot to sell his watches in Bloomingdales. His company brought him about $50,000 a year – while he was still in high school. That’s impressive! Do you love to shop? Love fashion or makeup? Start a YouTube channel or Instagram account, get creative, and make engaging videos/photos. Scale it up to 100,000 subscribers. Have a few videos go viral — consistency is key, not luck alone. Get your channel featured in a few media outlets — Huffington Post, Business Insider, or a magazine like Vogue or Claire Marie. Love computer programming, web design, Photoshop, or social media? First, get competent – really, really competent. There are tons of free coding/programming courses out there, in addition to a thousand summer coding bootcamps, either through universities, community colleges, private institutions, and more. Some are free; some are expensive. But the point is to start learning the craft. Start building your own apps and websites. Get them as high as possible in the app store. Start your own a digital marketing agency, designing websites that not only look stunning but also help convert visitors into customers for clients. There are so many small businesses who need help with this, and if you help them with their digital needs (website design, social media management, Facebook advertising, etc.), you can create a legitimate small business for yourself that truly impresses colleges. Do you love baking? Don’t just bake at home. Take it to the next level. See if you can create a signature dish and start selling it. Ever heard of those stories in which teens hit upon a unique recipe of their own, their neighbors and friends love it, and suddenly, so many people want to eat it that the teen has to start a business behind it? Start a bakery, perhaps. Love fashion? Find an internship that allows you to do more than grunt work. Take initiative to pitch ideas of responsibilities you can take — such as submitting your own fashion designs to the creative director to see if he likes anything. Even if he doesn’t, he may be impressed that you went above and beyond, which could lead to gaining additional responsibilities. Heck, go out out and start your own small fashion line. Sell it on Etsy. Scale up as big as you can. Even if you can’t start a new fashion brand, that’s okay – the goal is to make this as serious a pursuit as possible beyond mere “hobby status.” As parents, you should encourage your children to explore as many avenues as possible (before high school begins, ideally). This helps your children recognize what they enjoy and don’t enjoy. The time for well-roundedness is BEFORE high school. I have so many memories from elementary and middle school when I was just exploring anything and everything: sports, music, art, gymnastics, calligraphy, woodworking, programming, engineering, chess, archery, leadership, scuba diving, and much more. I’m lucky that my parents filled my days with all sorts of activities. Some were fun for a week or month, but others stuck much longer. Many of the world-class students applying to these top schools found their passion before high school, often times even before middle school. I was recently watching Shark Tank and was thoroughly impressed by a 16-year old girl who started computer programming when she was 10. She delivered three TED talks already and created her own anti-bullying app that T-Mobile actually wanted to roll out. Thousands of schools were ready to take her app to the next level too. These applicants tend to be the standout students.
PRO TIP: What to learn how to get accepted to deliver a TEDx talk? Check out this excellent course by my friend Ryan Hildebrandt, a TEDx organizer, on how to land your first TEDx talk: https://getyourfirsttedtalk.com/do-a-tedx-talk/ Lots of free tips on that on his homepage too if you don’t want to buy his course.If you are already in high school and haven’t yet found your passion, then you have a difficult task in front of you. You need to decide quickly what passion you are going to pursue and go hard. Otherwise there’s not much time left to achieve superstardom level. You’ll have to ruthlessly cut away activities that aren’t productive, such as sports, music, and hanging out with friends. The catch-22 is that you need to explore various things to know what you’re passionate about, but yet you don’t have the time. And if you decided to go deep in one area that turns out you’re not that passionate about, it will be exponentially harder for you to put in the commitment to actually excel here (since the activity will feel like a drag, not an enjoyable passion). There’s really no magic solution here. I recommend getting involved in things quickly but also dropping them quickly if you can’t envision yourself truly devoting hundreds, if not thousands of hours into it. Try a lot, drop a lot, and hopefully one will stick.
Is One Particular Passion Better Than Another?No specific passion is better than another. Some people, mistakenly, try to game the system. They try to figure out whether Stanford likes engineers more than musicians or if Harvard likes social activists more than entrepreneurs. Many families I work with even come to me with concerns about minutiae, such as whether Cornell Architecture, Cornell Art, or Cornell Design is easier to get into. If you’ve developed your passions deeply, you don’t need to WORRY about these small issues because you will come across as so attractive a candidate that these details don’t matter one bit. The truth is, we can’t accurately predict whether a school will like a particular passion more than another. Even if the school has historically seemed to accept more students who are good in X, what if the dean of admission retires or transfers? What if the school embarks on a change in priorities the year you’re applying? Then all that hard work you did trying to groom yourself for that school is wasted. Follow yourself, not what you think a school wants specifically. Schools want ANY appropriate passion. Period.
How to Find Your Specific Passion?A lot of students tell me they aren’t especially passionate about anything. That’s because they haven’t ever been exposed to something that truly sparked their interest. That’s because they are caught in the same everyday routine — school, mundane activities, homework, more school. Rinse and repeat. To find your passion, you need to start with exposure and mentorship. Don’t discount something just because you feel you won’t like it. Never in my life did I ever dream I would enjoy entrepreneurship and running a business. All my friends, teachers, and family members pegged me as the creative type. My high school even voted me “Most Likely to Become the Next New York Times Bestseller.” Even I myself firmly believed I would become a novelist, screenwriter, or movie director. Get some variety; try different things. But what I ignored was my highly logical side. I’ve actually always been highly logical. My love for chess and strategies games such as the Magic: The Gathering or Yugioh card games proved that. But I always struggled in math class, so I felt anything logical wasn’t the field for me. Yet I got a perfect SAT math score, both on the regular SAT and the SAT Subject Test: Math Level 2. I also got a 5 on my AP Calculus AB test and a 4 on my Calculus BC subscore. Today, that logical side has me loving learning about business development strategies, marketing, and entrepreneurship in general, all things that were never on my radar throughout high school or college. The takeaway is this: passion comes from exposure. You should talk to your network or your parents’ networks to see if there are any interesting things you can join. You don’t have to be good at something to begin. Your goal is simply to see if you’ll enjoy it and determine if it’s something you can become passionate about.
Do NOT join things if your main reason is your friends are in it.If they are in it, that means you will stand out even LESS. Now that doesn’t mean go find something that absolutely no one is doing. It means find your own unique version of it. For example, if your friend is researching at a university, don’t try to join the exact same project under the same professor. Go find your own professor and project. If your friends are part of volunteering club, don’t just join their club. Instead, found your own activist foundation around a particular cause, such as promoting girl’s education across the world. (The problem with most volunteer clubs is that they are too broad, putting on unrelated activities such as helping out a nursing home to cleaning up the beach to soup kitchens to running donation drives to breast cancer walks.) Think creatively: Google opportunities, ask your teachers if they know of anything you can join or compete in, and find mentors who can introduce you to lesser known activities. You can’t rely on your school providing you the activities to join. I’d go as far as to say that the vast majority of school clubs are worthless — because they don’t allow you to do something truly unique or impactful. Most of time are grunt work or grind activities, which aren’t impressive. Meetup.com is an excellent way to find local organizations to join. The fact that many of these organizations or groups are made up of adults is actually a good thing because that means they can help direct you towards opportunities the typical highschooler won’t have heard of. Find clubs, events, opportunities, and mentors outside of school. Linkedin.com is a great way to find potential mentors in a field you may be interested in. Send a cold email out to them, seeing if they are willing to chat for 10 or 15 minutes about their experiences in the industry. Express genuine interest and ask thoughtful questions. Don’t ask for an internship or opportunity at first. Build a relationship, then in time, they may offer you something — or you can directly ask after you’ve established a mentorship. Also, look for competitions, awards, and selective programs you can join related to your passion. There’s no better way to demonstrate excellence than winning highly regarded awards. For example, one highly accomplished girl who was accepted into every Ivy League school, Stanford, and more was a student reporter for the L.A. Times, won all sorts of literary awards, won a Young Screenwriters’ Playwrights Competition that actually professional produced her play, and even wrangled her way in as a regular student reporter for all the big movie premieres, interviewing A-list Hollywood celebrities, producers, and directors. These are all unique and selective pursuits, all themed around a particular passion. She was focused in her interests rather than spreading herself too thin. That doesn’t mean she did nothing else outside this area (she did), but it’s clear that this was her passion. If you’re really into science or math, compete at the highest levels on the Science or Math Olympiad (nationally or even internationally). If you’re into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), then look into joining some of these:
- Research Summer Institute (RSI)
- Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES @ MIT)
- Summer Science Program (SSP)
- Young Engineering and Science Scholars (YESS @ Caltech) programs.
- California State Summer School for Math and Science (COSMOS) — this one can actually give you an edge for the University of California schools (e.g. Berkeley, UCLA) and is available at four campuses; COSMOS isn’t quite at RSI’s level of prestige, but it’s still good
- Stop the useless AP classes you aren’t truly interested in, as long as you already have a decent amount of APs
- Stop the grunt work or participant level activities: volunteering, sports, blind research, music, color guard, marching band, etc.
- Audit what you’re truly doing with your free time – are you wasting too much time on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, YouTube, video games, shopping, hanging out with friends? Cut that down.
- How selective or competitive is this? The more selective or competitive the better (and it goes without saying that you have to win.) National things are generally best – for example, 12 young playwrights chosen from all of the United States.
- Does this allow me to show deep leadership? If you’re merely participating, not organizing or leading, then the activity may not be worth it.
- Is the activity beneficial to society? The bigger the impact, the better.
- Is the activity unique or hard to achieve? They should be if you want to impress. You probably know in your gut if doing this thing is actually impressive or if it’s just another run-of-the-mill filler activity. Delivering a TED talk is amazing; giving a talk to your class at school…not so much.
Remember, it’s not the number of hours that is impressive. It’s the quality of the achievement that’ll make you stand out.The best way to achieve a QUALITY achievement is to pursue a monument project. This is a massive undertaking that allows a student to really show off leadership skills, impact on society, and true passion. El Capitan National Monument in Yosemite Park. Can you be as impressive as that? First, figure out what specialty you want to emphasize further. If you’ve already done several activities that support a particular interest, then your monument project should continue to go deeper in that field. Then brainstorm something you can organize, produce, found, or create around this topic. You can organize a large scale community event. You can produce a feature film or documentary (or write a novel or full-length play). You can found a business or non-profit and make it truly successful (ideally with reach far beyond your local community). You can create a successful YouTube channel with tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Here are some examples: 1. Archaeology documentary and event. Say you’re into archaeology, so you decide to research the history of the bow and arrow and how it’s played a role in various cultures. You film a documentary about it, going as far as reaching out to professors and experts around the world to set up in-person or Skype interviews that you record. You get together with a friend who’s good at making snazzy videos and produce a 30-minute documentary that looks far better than the typical student project or amateur video. You really make your project into something special. Then you coordinate with a local archery range to put on a workshop where kids can come learn to build their own bow and arrow (you source the materials and organize instructors to lead these workshops). Afterwards, the kids can have some fun on the range, shooting their newly constructed bow and arrows. At the same time, you’ve invited some speakers, such as a notable professor, to give a keynote speech about the importance of archaeology to really excite these young kids about pursuing a career in the field one day. You even screen your documentary there, have a live concert, and make the whole event into a charity event where people hang out, donate, and have some fun around archaeology. Maybe you even go as far as promoting your documentary on YouTube and get a sizable view count of at least 100k. You can also see if there are any history competitions you can join with your documentary. 2. Ethnic rights. Say you are proud to be Asian, but you’ve noticed there has been a lot of issues cropping up in the Asian community — from racism, to stigmas, to cultural clashes (especially for Asian-Americans), to unequal pay, and more. You could go out and report on these issues, interviewing local community members about their opinions. You can do some deep research into these topics and write stories or film short news feature segments that highlight various Asian topics. Then you design a magazine that features all of these various issues, from mental health in the Asian community, to LGBTQ issues, to racist encounters, and more. Of course, you print and distribute as many of these issues as you can in relevant places. You can even create a whole website to showcase your articles, video interviews, and such. 3. Smartphone app programming. If you’ve become highly skilled in programming, you can code your own app. I’m talking about something significant and that actually helps solve a real problem. If you think too small, then making an app is no big deal. Ideally, your app should take hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to make and debug. Hopefully, it will reach some sort of decent status on the app store, with a sizable number of downloads. 4. Creative work. Do you like writing or composing? Then literally write your own novel, full-length script, or play. Or compose a whole symphony. Again, the project must be weighty to be impressive. If all you do is write a poem or a couple songs, that’s not going to cut it. If you can, go out and get your work professionally published or produced. 5. Business. Enjoy entrepreneurship? Then start your own business and scale it into something respectably profitable ($40,000+ per year). Get some media mentions of your company – TV, radio, popular websites, magazines, etc. Posting your own Facebook or Instagram posts to promote your business doesn’t count. The business could be anything! You could be selling physical goods or digital ones. It could be a product or service based business. Maybe you’re good at web design – then start a digital design agency. Maybe you love dogs – start a dog-walking and sitting company (I know people who make multiple six-figures a year doing this, no lie). Good at school? Start a tutoring company. But make whatever business you found legitimate – go through the legal paperwork, open up a business bank account, have a presentable website, and such. But be careful about wasting time “playing business” (i.e. doing things that make you feel like you’re running a business, such as making business cards and designing logos, as opposed to focusing on your core offering). There are infinite more monument projects you can pursue. They can range from putting on community events to personal projects. You’ll need to think creatively, yet realistically. The best gauge of whether your idea is impressive is to pretend if one of your classmates came up to you and said he has accomplished exactly whatever your idea was. Would you be impressed? If so, then do it. If not, then think bigger — then go do it. If you want to get into a top school, you can’t afford to waste your summer lounging by the pool or playing video games all day long. This is the perfect time to dive deep into your passion and truly accomplish something incredible. Summer is awesome, but do something productive beyond beach days.
Summer is a perfect time to do your monument project.Other popular summer activities include:
- Summer classes
- Pre-college programs or academic summer programs
- Continuing school year activities/clubs
- Sports practice
- SAT/ACT prep courses
- Mission trips/volunteering
- Interning or part-time jobs
- Family vacations
- College visits
- Sports practice
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