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The Art of Being Productive in High School to be a More Attractive College Applicant (Part 1)

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Most students know they need to be productive, because getting into an excellent college requires much more than good grades nowadays. It now requires a well written application highlighting many interests and accomplishments, including a high GPA.

Webster defines productivity as “the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.” Indeed, students today are expected to do a lot in high school.

How and why has the concept of productivity become so important for motivated high school students?

Let’s start by acknowledging that high school (and college) and indeed the learning process in general can be negatively affected by too many concerns around productivity. Part of the “magic” of learning is engaging deeply with material, struggling hard to learn some things, really enjoying other things, and getting exposed to new ideas. The fact of the matter though, is that the college application process is competitive, and students do need to find ways to do a lot in high school to position themselves well in the eyes of top colleges.

While it is tempting to just take for granted that motivated high school students must excel at multiple things to gain admission to highly selective colleges, it can be helpful to step back and remember how this situation came to be. The answer lies in how much more competitive and global the economy has become.

Consider a high school student today vs. 30 years ago. 30 years ago, in far more parts of the country than is the case today, a large percentage of high school students did not plan on applying to college. There were well paying local jobs available for high school graduates in a variety of fields, most notably manufacturing. Much of the training required occurred on the job. This meant that in high school many students could opt to focus on maybe three major things: getting good enough grades to graduate, enjoying the high school experience (sports, social life, music, etc.) and perhaps working to start saving money.

Of course, 30 years ago, many other students were indeed applying to college. But at that time, the number was lower, because of the other group of students I mentioned above. There were also fewer students from other countries applying to U.S. colleges and universities. The net effect was that competition to get into a good college was less intense. There just weren’t as many people applying.

Contrast that with today.

A very good college today might have a similar number of available spots in its freshman class, but 2 or 3 times as many applicants vs. 30 years ago, which simply creates a far more selective admissions process. Applicants have more people to “beat” for each slot.  Whereas the primary criteria for admission in the past was grade point average, today GPA is just one of many factors. To be able to differentiate and choose amongst applicants, colleges today must look at all of the other things a student has been able to accomplish, both to identify applicants most likely to thrive in college, but also simply as a means of ranking students with otherwise similarly impressive GPAs.

But, a word of caution; quality probably matters more than quantity.

While students today do need to accomplish more in high school to stand out in the college admissions process, the quality of what you accomplish still matters. And, demonstrating that you put yourself in leadership positions is also very important. If you have a good but not great GPA, take 7 AP classes but get a B average in them, play three sports, are in three clubs, were in the school play, and are in the band, that’s impressive because it’s a lot of stuff. However, it might be more impressive if you had a higher GPA, took 4 AP classes and aced them all, and were the captain of one sports team as well as the president of a club.

Remember, if two students take the same AP class and one gets an A while the other gets a B, one way to describe the situation is that the student getting the A was more productive with his or her time. He has an A to show for his efforts. Of course, if one student takes an AP class and gets a B and the other student doesn’t even take that AP class, that is also an example of one student being more productive in high school.

So, how can high school students start to be more productive?

Now, while being productive is important, let’s acknowledge that high school students are kids, and it’s important to enjoy the high school experience and have fun. Stressing yourself out by trying to join a bunch of activities you think you must join is a recipe for failure. You are less likely to excel at something you don’t enjoy. And as we’ve stated above, quality matters more than quantity. So, a productive high school student accomplishes more things per year, yes, but they also need to be the “right” things. As a college admissions officer, you’d also like to see a resume full of activities that hang together somehow logically. If you took AP biology, chemistry, and physics and were involved in some sort of pre-medicine or health careers club, that hangs together well.

I think students should think about a six-step plan to becoming more productive and building a high-quality college resume:

  1. Identify the activities and subjects you value and are genuinely interested in
  2. Identify key areas of alignment between what you value and what colleges would also value to create “leverage”
  3. Set goals and build a plan to meet them
  4. Get organized
  5. Prioritize and re-prioritize
  6. Get help when you need it

In our next blog post, we’ll dive deeper into each of these six steps.