It’s the Little Things that Matter

“Anne,  Suzy isn’t doing anything that will look good on her college applications. I’m so frustrated with her.” 

“Anne, what in the world should I do about Joey this summer, now that COVID-19 has essentially shut down the plans we’d made for him to ____________ (you get to fill in the blank here…usually it involves the leading/running of others, an act of volunteerism, or some sort of packaged “pre-college” program thingy)?”

“Anne, my Charlie doesn’t actually DO anything. Their grades are fine, but clubs aren’t appealing to them…they don’t like to tell others what to do nor be told as such. They don’t care about volunteering. They stay in their room, doing I’m not too sure what. Colleges will think they’re a loser because there are no extracurricular activities for them to place on their college application. They just don’t like their schoolmates and they don’t want to consider any of my ideas regarding clubs and volunteerism.”

10 Curious Things Parents Do To Mess Up Their Kid’s College Journey

Curious Thing #6

Buy-In and Odd Notions Regarding Extracurriculars’ Roles in College Applications

I hear this stuff from parents all the time as their kids are steadily inching toward college application season. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say it is the chief concern among parents, best as I can tell, that falls right behind some preconceived list of usually inappropriate college choices for Junior.

Not so far back in time, to distill down an old and complicated message, I essentially used to tell kids and parents that in order to possess the best shot in cracking the admissions code within any fantasy school included in an Ivy League-level collection, the winning application should generally show some sort of earning of a competitive national (or minimally, at least State-level) championship title or impressive ranking. In more recent times, I’ve looked back at the extracurricular-sorts of activities my school-based charges have touted, and it’s become crystal clear to me that “it ain’t necessarily so.”

Trilogy is King.

The Grades, Rigorous Curriculum & Test Scores

But the “Extracurriculars” category that appears on any holistically driven college application is the next item down the checklist that causes lots of strife and rumination — and dollars.

I think my own confusion within this topic has been influenced by the fact that not only have I read and believed such nonsense along the way as I’ve honed my own college-counseling skills, but it’s also because kids who are naturally curious and involved with the world in terms of wondering about complex societal questions — or ones who win any sort of chosen competition at some astonishingly high level — are also the sorts of young people who are fundamentally made of “the right stuff,” so to speak. In other words, all of those moving parts must work together. It’s pretty tough to reverse-engineer that sort of winner. The person is just “that person” from the get go thus those traits tend to add up to college applicants who show such measurable wins.

RELATED: Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation: Keeping Music Alive in Our Schools

Here are some things I’ll tell you about this category of achievers. 

A sizable portion of them don’t hold national titles, don’t clock in stupendous numbers of volunteer hours, and don’t turn themselves inside out in devising any sorts of master plans for eventual college admissions success. What they do collectively feature is a zest for life and its selected curiosities and this inherent inquisitiveness and intellectual fervor just seems to shine through on its own. It’s present in such a young person’s essay writing and it’s hard to call out. It’s there in the uniqueness and brightness (in all connotations of the word) in this person’s extracurriculars. It’s an unintentional display of humor, empathy, imperfections, joy, intense wonderment that just IS. It can’t be manufactured. 

My best example of this sort of student with whom I worked in the past now attends Stanford University via an early-decision acceptance. Yes, academically speaking, he was nothing short of brilliant — had all of the requisite top-level grades, math classes and test scores. So do plenty of kids from virtually every high school in the nation. What I noticed was missing from his activities resume was that big splashy title, you know, PRESIDENT of X; 1st-Place Winner of X, National Champion of X, one trillion volunteer hours dedicated to X. 

But what was it that made him a winner?

Some of it is pretty darned intangible. I can tell you that his eyes lit up at a level that could light up the sky at the mention of any topic that interested him…and he was full-on interested in things that would never cross my own mind in a million years. He was clearly kind, moral in the best sense of the word, spiritual in ways the oldest of souls don’t access. He was driven to taking action in pursuing anything that moved him to the point where he wanted to instruct or share aspects of it with others. He clearly believed in his role as a natural caretaker of youth and also of his immediate and extended families. He was unimpressed by his own accomplishments, was unassuming about his chances at being admitted to a fantasy school. Sitting with him made me want to go home and to work with a heightened sense of wanting to “do better.” Honestly? He was exceptionally raised by stellar people. 

Another example?

One of my charges from a few years back is now an undergrad at Columbia University.

Yes, he easily earned A’s. He rode a horse at a competitive level, but nothing I deemed particularly earth-shattering. He started a small-yet-lovely LGBTQ club at our school that was not outside of the ordinary. He had a minority component to his presentation, but nothing too noteworthy as both parents were college-educated and accomplished in their careers. He’d turned in a science project for a grade in an AP class that looked ordinary to me, but earned him an undergrad science research fellowship at Columbia.  So what, exactly, was it that pushed him over the top?  Besides the fact that our staff’s recommendation letters that were submitted on his behalf were stellar, I will say that this young person also had that un-manufacture-able je ne sais quoi.

Missed Parts One through Five of Anne’s College series? Find them Here.

And another one…she is currently a student at The University of Chicago on a full-ride Questbridge Scholarship. Yes, she hails from an underrepresented-minority background, but so do lots of equally viable applicants. She was the sort of high school kid one rarely encounters as her very real specialness is hard to describe. She loved to study and it was so clear it moved her heart and soul at an exalted level none of her classmates touched. Sure, she was a budding songwriter, a striving visual artist, someone who loved to write. But there was this extra “thing” she had. It could’ve never been studied and copied by anyone. She was quietly driven to dig, understand, extrapolate, effortlessly operate on a daily basis as a higher being who lived within self-created boundaries of humility.

When one encounters this rare type of young person, one just “knows.”

So what are the rest of us common folk supposed to do?

What should we learn from these wonderful young specimens in trying to guide our own offspring?

I think it’s that no amount of volunteer hours, expensive pre-college summer programs, devised leadership roles, earned titles and such are sure to do the trick. In fact, not everyone can and should be a leader. This whole overwrought thing about leadership is kind of sickening if my own truth is told. Some people, including a large number of college applicants, are born introverts. They often present to the uninformed eye as followers, which is a label no one likes. But guess what? Good leaders need good followers.

Here’s what I present for you to consider as a parent of one of the many non-title holders in the nation’s yearly college applicant pool:

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Your “unspecial” kid does indeed have discernible passions, pursuits.

You have to look way, way beyond what’s typical. 

The best and most marketable achievements and passions may be small, individually developed out of natural-born interests, and they are infinite in numbers of examples.

Your teen may be of a quiet and individually driven sort that attracts little-to-no attention. Maybe your child voraciously reads a certain genre of books behind a closed bedroom door. Or perhaps your kid likes to just sit and draw. They are both bona fide extracurriculars. Perhaps your teen keeps a journal or is compelled to write out lists of “favorites”  —  songs, books, people, food, etc. Hmmm…that kid is a categorizer. Who are “categorizers” and what do they do in life?  

I think most admissions officers would tell you if they’re being honest, that an accumulation of volunteer hours devoted to some organized endeavor is pretty soporific in encountering on a college application.

But some indication of that activity actually floating that applicant’s boat at some high level of real purpose and passion can certainly be a winning choice. 

Somewhere along the line, both public and private high schools started proliferating some untruth that not only are forced community service-hours graduation requirements a great lesson-teaching thing to foist on kids, but it’s also “good for college.” I think the impulse started somewhere in a well-intentioned place, but it’s now being delivered to the masses in a downright washed-out way. 

I don’t know about you, but after being forced to get my grumbling teens out of bed on some Saturday morning and driving them out to some warehouse on the outskirts of our city to pack grapefruits in a box to ship somewhere didn’t teach them much of anything and I promise you their colleges didn’t care. However, it did teach me something, which was that I was annoyed that the burden of delivery fell on me…and that my own time, as well as theirs, should’ve been spent on things that mattered to us. Don’t get me wrong. It’s for certain some kids do indeed derive satisfaction and meaning from such forced exercises thus they are the ones who should do them and then write about those experiences on college apps. But one size doesn’t fit all and when it doesn’t fit, don’t expect it to drive that kid’s college application to a successful outcome. Passion counts and it shows in subtle ways.

So many kids who hold formal leadership titles are not the true leaders within any school or organizational culture.

The kid who shines is the kid who actually “does” things without fanfare — it’s the kid who is obviously high on what I call targeted “doing-ness.”

The senior who will receive our school’s top award at graduation this year is certainly nowhere near being a top-level academic achiever and does not hold a single club leadership title and I’m pretty sure doesn’t clock volunteer hours for any outside organization. I’m not even so sure she has a definable group of friends as she sort of flies on her own and contributes actions and goodwill wherever it makes sense.

What she does within our little school culture is to light up the daily environment. She enjoys life itself and it’s obvious. She’s kind, she’s helpful, she’s delighted by so much that appears commonplace. She’s there to “bring it” in her own way, driven by her own light and passion. She makes our daily lives so much better and it’s probable most people don’t even recognize what it is she brings. This coming fall, she is attending a selective college for sure, but one that is totally right for who she is and what she can do for others.

It’s the little things that matter…small impressions, diligence, pure positive intentions.

Those things that are manifested through oftentimes everyday sorts of things are what makes a college applicant special. The trick is to access your own recognition of them. 

It’s the Little Things that Matter…

Small impressions, diligence, pure positive intentions.

Those things that are manifested through oftentimes everyday sorts of things are what makes a college applicant special. The trick is to access your own recognition of them.

You can find the informational series Here of “Ten Curious Things Parents Do To Mess Up Their Kid’s College Journey”

Anne’s insidewink series about the high school and college-planning process you and your teenager may be living through or planning to tackle in the foreseeable future.

Anne Cochran

Anne Cochran is an award-winning leader of a small and passionate team of educators who opened Valley International Preparatory High School (VIPHS) in August 2018. — a new charter high school dedicated to providing 21st-Century-informed college options to grades 9-12. As a former marketing veteran within Hollywood’s film industry and small-business owner, Anne redirected her career interests nearly 12 years ago to addressing a need she observed within secondary public education, which is to bring optional college options to public school-educated teens who would otherwise be presented with very limited choices. Anne has been married for over 45 years to Chuck Cochran, creator and namesake of “Chuck Cochran’s Music Lab” at VIPHS, and they have two grown children.

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