Jan. 21, 2020
"Will this get me in?" That's one big question that high school students ask themselves as they consider activities to prepare for college. Though seemingly straightforward, the question is a misguided one. Approaching college applications from such a perspective can result, at best, in pursuing opportunities you are not even remotely interested in and gain nothing from, and at worst, being burned out before you even get to college.
What you may want to do instead is intentionally pursue jobs that align with your curiosity. As challenging as it may be, think beyond the paycheck and the resume. In recent years, many colleges have become test-optional and are putting heavier weight on other factors, including application essays and interviews, two aspects many applicants struggle with. A job will not only complement your academic performance, but it could also help you collect stories that grab admission officers' attention for the right reasons.
If this one seems obvious, well, it is. An important element admission officers look for is school and program match (or your genuine interest in a chosen field of study). This doesn't mean you have to be 100 percent committed to a field (though if you are, perfect!); rather, you're showing that based on your past experience and performance, that's the field you are most curious about exploring. To convince admission officers you have a good reason for your choice, consider roles that relate to what you want to study.
What is motivating you to pursue a college degree and what particular subject(s) are you curious about? How did you reach that conclusion and what have you already done that shows your genuine interest in the subject? What can you still do to confirm your choice and show your interest? As you reflect on the above questions, think about what's available in your geographical area that matches the jobs you need. For example, the Johns Hopkins Summer Jobs Program exposes Baltimore high school students to careers in the medical field, which allows them to gain relevant knowledge and skills while confirming their interest in the subject.
Another characteristic admission officers look for in applicants is service orientation, or their motivation and determination to positively impact their environment and community. If you know that the colleges you are considering value social impact, global-mindedness and community engagement, you may want to consider opportunities that show you care about giving back to your community, are curious about building your leadership potential, are committed to mentoring and growing others, and have the ability to think and act with a larger purpose in mind. Such roles include but are not limited to camp counselors, tour guides, tutors, assistant coaches, swim teachers, babysitters and lifeguards. You could even explore opportunities with the US National Park Service!
Though GPA and course rigor are key indicators of your potential for academic success -- something admission officers definitely look for -- a job can further enhance the story of you as a disciplined high performer. Whatever your chosen subject, college programs are often more rigorous than high school studies, and showing that you have the exceptional work ethic to excel in fast-paced environments is vital. Such opportunities can also help you showcase a number of valued skills, including the ability to juggle multiple priorities, interpersonal and communication strengths, and responsibility to manage money.
The job itself is not what matters most; the stories and connections you build through the experience of working are what can make the difference between an engaging, standout personal statement and a bland one. Roles that fall into this category include amusement park attendants, food service workers (pizza delivery driver, waiter, barista, dishwasher, host, busser, etc.), bowling alley attendants, cashiers (grocery stores, movie theaters), sales associates, valet parking attendants, and lawn care workers.
Opportunities that could help you explore an industry and gain valuable skills that show you as a professional are the ones that expose you to work environments in the real world. The most obvious roles in that category are office jobs (e.g. receptionists), but depending on your interests, you could consider available roles in diverse contexts: radio/TV, local businesses, libraries, hospitals, and so forth. Such roles allow you to interact with a variety of people and sharpen your communication and interpersonal skills. They also challenge your organizational ability and often provide fertile ground for taking initiatives that show you as someone who doesn't simply do what's expected, but also notices gaps and comes up with ideas to close them.
Ultimately, admission officers are trying to figure out who you are as a person and whether that person would fit into their institution. Having your personality shine through the experiences you list on your resume and mention in your application essays is a great way to stand out. Unusual jobs, as long as they're presented well, can be the starting point of a conversation that draws admission officers to you. What experiences fall into that category depend on your context, but some I've encountered in my many years at academic institutions include jobs in a woodshop, a circus and a farm, and roles as a handyperson, a doula assistant and a seamstress. The above are experiences students are hesitant about putting on their resumes or in their essays, which is unfortunate because these allow for stories that make admission officers curious about you, about how you ended up in the role, and about the lessons you learned.
Whatever job experience you are able to secure, remember that what's truly important is reflecting on that experience, identifying lessons learned, and telling stories that showcase the value you gained or delivered. Stories draw people in and help you connect with them on a personal level. As you complete paid opportunities, reflect using the following questions: What did you do? What did the experience teach you? How has it prepared you for the direction you want to pursue? Answering these questions will help you determine how you can share the lessons you learned from the experiences in a meaningful way.
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