by Rick Clark
Today we’re going to wrestle with this notorious inquiry: “I am (or, my child is) a junior/sophomore/seventh grader/eight years old (I’m not kidding), what extracurriculars should we be doing right now to be competitive?” I answer the same way every time. “To be competitive, you should choose activities that make you happy.” The vast majority of students and parents think I’ve dodged the question. I haven’t. I’ve given the same answer for well over a decade and I’m sticking to it.
Find What Makes You Happy
Maybe that answer is deceptively simple, which is why it’s often dismissed as hedging. I’m not dodging the question—I’m giving you a framework. Perhaps a “re-framework” as you make big decisions, like should you try out for the travel team, spend the summer in an internship or mission trip, stay a third year in robotics or take that new advanced class offering. Instead, high school students everywhere (and their parents) should ask the same question: does this activity make me happy?
If you are about to dismiss this advice as soft, overly codifying, or unrealistic, wait! I’m about to let you in on the secret of why admission officers think students who enjoy their activities are more successful in the college application process (and probably life in general).
- If you love it, you naturally become more competitive.
The byproducts of doing something you love (in high school or in your professional life) are surprisingly positive. You don’t have to believe me because there is science to back that up. Check out Shawn Achor’s research in his book, the Happiness Advantage. What he says about business success is also true in the college application process. Joyful participation in high school endeavors has a ripple effect, leading to things such as increasing a club’s membership, finding ways to lead or innovate on projects, resiliency from year to year, providing access to others—essentially all the attributes that stand out to an admission committee when they are reviewing applications. Look at your resume. What activities make you happy? Do more of those things! Competitiveness will follow.
- If you are interested, I’ll be more interested.
Nothing deflates a conversation more than a student trained to rattle off their 4-10 resume activities and then ask me if they are “good.” Nothing engages me more than a student who tells me, “I love XYZ! I saw online that your college has WXY, do you think that’s a good fit?” This engagement translates to the application itself. Applications fall flat when you are checking off boxes, trying to craft a summary of undertakings that you really don’t enjoy. Applications have a life and an energy when a student is trying to use every available space to expound on a passion project. Telling your activities story is more authentic and believable. When seen through this framework, your activities list is no longer a bureaucratic hurdle to get to college, but a written conversation retelling the most meaningful parts of your high school career.
- Activities that are difficult can still make you happy.
I said this was not a softball answer and I meant it. I don’t mean that everything you do in high school should be easy. Easy and happy are not the same thing. Some of the hardest situations can result in a new-found strength, a renewed focus, a sense that what you are doing has great value because it came at great cost. That’s when being happy graduates to the big leagues: joy. I am not advising you to quit all your extracurricular activities because binge-watching Netflix makes you happy. Critically look at how you spend your time and ask yourself some serious questions. I have some thoughts below.
As an ode to the KonMari method, this is a KatMattli-approved checklist for whether you should or should not keep an activity:
- Do you feel excited about going to the meeting/practice/session/class?
- Do you have moments of inspiration about it (Eureka moments!) before you go to sleep at night?
- Do you talk about what you could do in this club/team next year?
- Do you try to get appointments with teachers/coaches/sponsors to talk more about it?
- Are you plotting ways to lead this group next year?
- Do you want to teach or coach other people who have had less training than you have?
- Is this project really difficult/challenging, but you are excited to see the finished product?
- Would you still want do this activity if you couldn’t list it on your college application?
On the flip side…
- Do you forget about that meeting each week?
- Do you feel icky walking down the hallway to this meeting/tournament/locker room/classroom?
- Does it keep you up at night in a bad way?
- Are you thinking of other activities while you are there?
- If you didn’t have to fill out a college application, would this club ever see your face again?
I’m holding fast to my original answer: you want your extracurriculars to be competitive? You need to enjoy the activities on your resume. Are you a freshman in high school and anxious about what clubs to join (which ones colleges will view as “good”)? Forget about us. Go enjoy your game/fan group/club/meeting. We will see you in a few years when you are thriving in something you love. Are you a junior in high school? Double down on the activities that bring you the most enjoyment. You will need that stress relief and balance as you hit tougher classes, and I can’t wait to hear about your journey.
And if you are eight years old? (Where is that astonishment emoji with the big eyes?) I am not discounting you, as it takes maturity to talk to college representatives at your age. But my answer to you is still the same, maybe even more so: Go enjoy yourself.