With college competition rising—and admissions rates dropping—nearly every year, it seems that it’s becoming harder to stand out on college applications.
Does your child have to be valedictorian? Do they have to devote all of their time to leadership positions and school clubs? Do they have to be the most “well-rounded”?
Not at all. In fact, ultra-successful college applicants are the ones who develop the most interesting extracurricular profiles. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
If your child is a junior, time is running out to really develop that “it factor” when it comes to impressing admissions committees. Soon, they’ll have AP exams and finals, leaving summer before senior year as their best opportunity to make a big impact and set themselves apart from the ever-growing applicant pool.
What Your Child Shouldn’t Do Over the Summer
Most parents will encourage their child to pursue one or more of the following:
Rack up additional extracurricular activities to demonstrate leadership and other qualities that colleges are looking for.
Join a summer program at a nearby prestigious university to include a “brand name” on their applications.
Volunteer in a low-income area, either domestically or abroad to communicate that they care.
Take another college class—or two—to show admissions committees that they’ve pushed themselves academically.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing any of these activities. However, they’re unlikely to help your child stand out on their college applications.
Why? Because most everyone can do them.
Returning to the numbered list above, I’ll demonstrate how easy it would be to replicate those activities:
Become the president or vice-president of an existing club. If that’s not possible, start a new club, which usually requires a simple application or faculty sponsorship.
Complete an application and pay thousands of dollars to get through the door.
Email organizations you’re interested in supporting, offering your services for free.
Complete an application and pay a fee to enroll in classes.
Admissions committees see these traditional activities all the time and know that they have low barriers of entry. Therefore, participating in any of them will not be particularly impressive. Moreover, doing more or many of them won’t change an admissions committee’s perception of their impressiveness.
This idea was first popularized by Dr. Cal Newport as the failed simulation effect, which he defines as follows: “Accomplishments that are hard to explain can be much more impressive than accomplishments that are simply hard to do.”
In other words, even if your child accomplishes something that’s “hard to do,” it may not be as impressive if an admissions committee member will be able to work through how your child made it happen, step-by-step.
What Your Child Should Do Over the Summer
So, what should your child do over the summer between junior and senior year? How can they accomplish something that’s “hard to explain”?
First, let’s consider a few impressive feats that are also hard to explain for examples of what this looks like:
Interviewing Elon Musk for your blog, which aims to explain high-level science concepts to a lay audience.
Getting invited to play saxophone with a well-known jazz band at a famous venue.
Meeting with your local city councilperson to discuss ways to improve mental health service delivery in your area.
If I asked you how to accomplish anything mentioned in these bullets, you’d likely be stuck. You might even feel like your child is impressive, but not one of those students.
Rather than leave you discouraged, however, I want to highlight the two-step process to help your child accomplish something meaningful and impressive over the summer in an area of interest:
Free up time
Take what you’ve already been doing to the next level
Free Up Time
Before we explore how to take things to the next level, I want to emphasize how important this first point is.
Specifically, students who have ample free time to pursue their extracurricular activities of interest are much more likely to make a large impact and stand out. On the other hand, students who are overcommitted to less impressive clubs and time-intensive classes simply won’t have the opportunity to become impressive.
However, understanding the importance of free time is much easier than actually letting go. As a parent, you’ll have to resist overscheduling your child out of fear that they won’t be keeping up with the Joneses—that is, with the rest of their classmates.
Take What You’ve Already Been Doing to the Next Level
If you follow any corporate CEO’s career, you’ll quickly notice that they paid some serious dues. They may have started out as an intern somewhere, obtained an entry-level position, developed important job skills, learned how to navigate company politics, and much more. In addition, they’ve often worked in a single industry, rather than jump around from one thing to another.
In other words, despite what it may seem like, impressive people are rarely overnight successes. Moreover, they don’t collect too many unrelated experiences.
Therefore, rather than accumulate yet another low-barrier experience in a new “industry,” your child should brainstorm ways to take their current work to the next level. For example:
Has your child been working in a biology lab at a local university? They should ask the principal investigator (i.e., head researcher) whether they could pursue an independent project and submit it for publication or otherwise present it to the scientific community.
Does your child already lead a local community service effort to support the homeless? Your child should consider partnering with a local organization with a related mission to create a larger initiative with an even more significant impact. Your child should also reach out to local media outlets to cover the story.
Is your child a budding makeup artist with a small YouTube channel? They should reach out to influencers within the same space who may be willing to share your child’s work with their large audiences.
Suppose you read a college essay written about any one of the three accomplishments listed above. Would you be impressed with the student?
If you’re like most parents, you would be. In addition to the impressiveness and interestingness of the above accomplishments, they would be “hard to explain,” thus passing the failed simulation effect test.
Perhaps the most ironic and best part of passing this test, however, is that your child will feel incredibly fulfilled after accomplishing something they truly care about, rather than simply for the sake of impressing college admissions committees.