Here are some things I hear high schoolers say…

  • “I’m not good at anything.”

  • “I should start a non-profit organization so I’ll stand out on my college application.”

  • “I should know what I want to study (or) I shouldn’t change my mind or else colleges will think I’m wishy-washy.”

  • “My interests are boring/too common.”

  • “College is the only option for me.” 

But are these things true?

I want to challenge some of these ideas, or at least have you question them.

And here’s my thesis: I believe that questioning these assumptions can actually bring more ease, joy, and purpose into your life.

In this post, you’ll learn: 

  • How to Discover Your Superpowers (in ~20 Minutes)

  • How to Identify a Community Service Project That Matters

  • 5 Reasons Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Major In + Two College Application Examples of Students Who Weren’t 100% Sure—and Still Got into Great Colleges

  • What to Do If You Feel Your Interests Are Common or Boring

  • Why You Might Consider the Benefits of Skipping College or Taking a Gap Year

  • A Walk-Through of Two Outstanding College Applications By Students Who Did Some of These Things + What You Can Learn from Them

Bias alert: I believe college is a good and useful thing worth pursuing. But at the end of this article, I’ll share some resources with you that may throw that into question or even debunk that whole notion. Stay tuned. 

Tip #1: Find your superpowers. 

First, try this 5-minute Values Exercise.

Context: It’s useful to think of values as the things that weave your entire application together, connecting the different pieces of you and offering a clear glimpse into who you are and what you’ll bring with you to college. Some students will have spent some time thinking in concrete language about their values, while others may have reflected less. Or maybe not at all. Regardless, this exercise is designed to help you get specific with them, so you can use them as a cornerstone to build the various pieces (i.e., your personal statement, activities list, additional info, and supplemental essays) of your application.

Optional: It can also be fun and can help a student build a sense of purpose to do two versions of their values list: one of what they feel they value now, and one that reflects values they would like to more fully embody in the future.

Next, here’s an exercise called How to Discover Your Superpowers in ~20 Minutes.

Context: Dr. Martin Seligman at UPenn (along with many others) has done some great work examining the psychology of human happiness, and of human strengths/high talent. The exercise above will ask you to spend some time working through a simple questionnaire on Seligman’s site at UPenn to find your highest strengths, then reflecting on how you’ve used those strengths so far in your life (and if you want, how you would like to further pursue them in the future—how they help you pursue the life you want).

Tip #2: Commit to a community service project that matters. 

A lot of students want to make a difference in the world, and thankfully not just because they think it will help them get into college. But if you’re going to undertake a big service project, I’m betting you want to make sure the thing/project you’re undertaking… is actually going to make a difference.

For example, here’s an excerpt of an essay from a student I worked with a few years ago:

“A group in my community worked to raise money to bring violins and violin teachers to a rural village in Kenya. They stayed for two weeks, donated thousands of dollars worth of instruments and gave children in the village a crash course in violin playing. But there was no violin teacher in the village, so the kids were unable to advance much further than the basic level, and the humidity and heat wreaked havoc on the violin frames. In the end, the Kenyans were left with nothing more than some sheet music, a pile of broken violins, and likely a feeling of defeat. I imagine it was also a disappointment to the volunteers who had good intentions and had worked hard, but had failed to take into account the resources in the village and a way to maximize them.”

Question for consideration: How can you create a community service project that isn’t just a resume builder, or doesn’t leave someone with, as this author puts it, a bunch of “broken violins”?

Better yet, consider asking: What organization is already doing awesome (and effective!) work that you could join?

But how do you figure out which organizations are doing effective work?

Introducing: Effective Altruism

What’s that?

Over the last few decades, some of the best thinkers in the world have dedicated their lives (and brains) to figuring out how we can try to make sure we’re doing the most good with the resources we have. Since all lives are of equal value, how do we try to ensure that we’re alleviating the most suffering we can?

For example, Peter Singer points out that while it’s admirable to train a seeing eye dog for a blind person, that training (and the training for the blind person to use the dog) tends to cost around $40,000 US dollars. With that money, you could cure somewhere between 400 and 2,000 blind people in a developing country of trachoma. So if we have limited resources, we should probably go with the second option.

That’s Effective Altruism in a nutshell.

Some organizations and charities are drastically more effective (hundreds or thousands of times more effective) than others at alleviating human suffering. And while I don’t want you to get neurotic and just create stress for yourself, I would encourage you to think about how you can take some steps ahead of time to ensure that the projects you work on are likely to lead to the kinds of outcomes that you want.

Here are some great resources to help you learn more about what Effective Altruism (EA) is and why it matters:

  • For a quick (17 minute) intro, check out Singer’s TED Talk: The why and how of effective altruism. Singer offers a brief overview of Effective Altruism (EA), and introduces, among other things:

  • For a longer discussion, listen to Sam Harris’ conversation with William MacAskill. MacAskill is a co-founder of Effective Altruism. He and Harris discuss how folks can make a difference, and how they can better think about making a difference.

How do you evaluate charities/nonprofits?

Where do you find an organization? 

Tip #3: 5 Reasons Why Your Major May not Matter as Much as You Think

First, here are 5 Reasons Why Your Major May not Matter as Much as You Think

But wait. First, how do you find your purpose? Some resources:

And how do you find a career that matters? Two resources I like:

But give yourself permission to change your mind.

It’s totally okay to change your mind…and you can still have a great application.

In the video at [26:25] you’ll see me briefly walk through an application from a student who wanted to study Molecular Biology in 9th-10th grade, but after an internship in 11th grade became interested in politics. 

And it’s okay not to know what you want to study…even in 12th grade. At [33:58] you’ll see me share an example essay by a student who didn’t know 100% what he wanted to study…and still wrote a great ending for his personal statement.

Tip #4: Keep pursuing your uncommon interests (if you have them) 

You’ll notice at [31:47] in the video I walk through a great essay on an uncommon interest—mariachi. In short, if you have something uncommon you’re into, keep doing it! 

But you’ll also find that you can take a more common interest and create a more uncommon approach in your essay. 

So how could you make your (more common) interest into something more uncommon? 

Idea A: Potentially combine it with something else. Case in point: many students do Boy Scouts… but how many combine it with their love of History… and go on to lead historical trail hikes? [Again, see 33:58 in the video.]

Idea B: Potentially attach it to a cause that matters to you. I didn’t cover this in the video above, but this same student played piano in an elderly folks home (so he combined music + service)… and this became his supplemental essay for UChicago. Where do you find service opportunities? Two simple ideas:

i. Look locally

ii. More ideas here: www.dosomething.org  

Tip #5: Find your Why (when it comes to college)

Instead of simply asking, “How do I get into the highest ranked college?” zoom back and ask: 

“Why college?” This is especially useful if college has always been assumed in your life/for your family. Consider asking: Is college definitely right for me? If so, why? (Pause.) 

And have you ever considered that college may not be the only option? 

Resources for those of you interested in this idea:

  • Check out www.blakeboles.com 

  • Podcast with Blake Boles [see: 37:17] explores: “What are some benefits of skipping college (or a gap year)?”

  • And Blake’s book Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree has chapters like “What to Do Instead of College” and includes advice like “Build Self-Knowledge, Give Yourself Assignments, Create and Share Value, Find Support, and Market Yourself”—and gives practical tips on how to do all those things.

Quick recap of what we’ve covered so far: 

For those of you who say…

  • “I’m not good at anything.” You do have superpowers. 

  • “I should start a non-profit organization so I’ll stand out on my college application.” You can find a project that you care about—see resources above. You can work with a group that’s already doing great work.

  • “I should know what I want to study (or) I shouldn’t change my mind or else colleges will think I’m wishy-washy.” You can totally change your mind. Or not know at all when you’re 17.

  • “My interests are boring/too common.” If you love them, do them. You can still write a great application (if college is/will be your thing).

  • “College is the only option for me.” Is that true? Have you considered other paths?

More resources when it comes to “Ease” in the college application process: 

More for when it comes to “joy” in high school (and in life):