Forget What Colleges Want. What Do You Want?

If you saw the post about why sleep is especially important for students, you may be trying to get more of this precious commodity by making cuts to your schedule.  

But what should you hold onto and what should you toss when it comes to extracurricular activities?

Here's where I should start telling you which extracurricular activities will look the best on your college applications.  Which ones will give you a competitive edge and impress the socks off admissions boards. And I'm not going to.  

Instead, I'm going to give you some crazy, renegade advice:

Be Led by Your Passions

Does that sound like a recipe for disaster? What if your passions aren't "pre-approved" by admissions officers?  What if you care about something obscure or unpopular or weird? What if you think you don't have any passions?

You have to trust me! (And if you want some reassurance that, yes, I do care whether you get into a college of your choice and have the opportunities that go with it, check out this quick video of the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University actually telling you that what colleges want is for you to do what you want!)

It's time to find what lights up your eyes.  When you choose activities that speak to your inner fires of creativity and joy, you perform better.  You also help put your brain into its best learning mode.  Best of all, you set yourself up for meaningful experiences that, yes, might lead to impressing colleges, but that will be more likely to lead to a satisfying career and life. 

Your Best Skills Are the Skills You Love

Instead of looking for the most "valuable" skill from someone else's perspective, think about what you love to do.  Chances are, you'll be better at what you love to do than at what you try to do because you think it's the "right" thing.  The winning strategy is to give your passion -- the activity that really excites you -- a slightly more structured form that other people (and organizations) will be able to understand easily.

Let's imagine that you are someone who would happily spend hours taking and editing photos.  While it's true that "Instagram" doesn't translate as an extracurricular activity, you have a core skill that you can find a creative use for.  What if you approached your school's yearbook club about adding an Instagram component to the yearbook? Or even to the school's website?  What if you approached local businesses about helping to build their online presences through social media, either as an intern or as a paid employee?

If you really have no idea what your passions are or what you like to do, try out some activities!  Ask your friends and family what they think you are good at.  Make brainstorms about what to do with the skills you have.  If you are considered by others to be "compassionate", maybe you want to investigate volunteering or working a teen help hotline.  If others said you are "logical", maybe you should check out an engineering summer program or the computer science elective at school.

Your Brain Needs You!

Did you know that your brain is constantly trying to tell  you what it needs? It is sending you messages in the form of good focus or lousy focus to tell you how it is wired and which tasks it is best at.  The times when you don't notice your brain are the times it's happiest.  (Being hypnotized by a TV or computer screen doesn't count...) Your brain is thriving when you are in "the zone". When you are purely doing an activity and not fighting with yourself in order to concentrate. Finding the activities that provide this feeling of "flow" will give your brain what it wants and make it behave better on the other activities that are harder for it.  

If you're someone who can barely sit still in class, you need to get up and active after school. Try a sport or some kind of outdoor exploration.  Work with your hands.  Make a garden.  Build a robot. Fix bikes. Become an assistant coach for a little league team.

If you feel at your most calm, relaxed, and present when you listen to music, try making some!  Learn guitar or piano. Join an orchestra or band.  Post videos of your best recitals on social media. Start a group with your friends and jam after school.

If you are easily overwhelmed by the endless sensory input of the world, find an activity that feels centering. Work on something detailed with few inputs, such as jewelry making or writing code.  Carve out a quiet niche where your brain can relax and focus intently on only one task. Go bird watching or become a part-time proofreader.

The World Needs You!

You may be hearing this from all directions, but the world has changed a lot in the last two decades.  And more specifically, college and career have changed.  There are now more students than ever competing for fewer and fewer spots in colleges.  And students graduating from those colleges are all competing for fewer and fewer traditional jobs.

But don't freak out!  This is not bad news!  This is, in fact, incredibly exciting news.  What it means is that there are fewer "old economy" jobs -- the kind that are already defined and that require a certain, known background and training.  And there are more "new economy jobs" -- the ones that require creativity, adaptability, passion, and flexibility.  Am I right that you're not exactly crying over the fact that it will be harder to get a job working on an assembly line but easier to start you own business?  

In the new economy, the people who have an edge are the people with passion and skill.  They embrace authenticity instead of people-pleasing.  They geek-out about a chosen field and figure out how to make it even better. They connect with other people in genuine ways and generate excitement about movements, not products. They use the web to create their own opportunities instead of waiting for opportunity to come knocking on the door.   

By the time you enter the job market, you need to know what you are good at.  What can you make? How do you work? Which problems can you solve? How do you think? Why are you special? What do you add to the conversation that no one else is saying? How will you turn the world on its head?

Use your extracurricular activities to practice creating your own opportunities.  Volunteer to set up a projected budget and finance spreadsheet for your youth group so that you can set fundraising goals. Ask your piano teacher about contests you can enter to gain recognition or win scholarships.  Request that your physics teacher become an adviser for an after-school club so you can start tinkering with motors.  Submit a proposal for a peer-tutoring program to your principal and earn community service credit for helping other students.

You've Got Time

Your skills and passions will grow. You'll discover new talents. You'll connect with people. And eventually, you'll have an impressive but also authentic list of achievements to send out to colleges and potential employers.  When you know what you love and what you do well, you can even begin to make jobs, rather than look for them.  Approach a company and offer your services for a summer internship that you design. Start your own business with a simple website and some spare time on the weekends. 

You don't have to turn your passion into a career.  But by creating an outlet for it, you will grow as a person and learn which  broader skills you have.  Being an actor might not feel like a viable career choice, but maybe you are so good at theater because you have fine-tuned empathy!  You should explore that -- perhaps you'd be an amazing therapist, teacher, or coach!

Continue doing what you do well.  And if you haven't found what that is yet, don't give up! Finding your passion allows you to be great at tasks and to work with your brain instead of against it. And ultimately it gives you the best possible shot at being a competitive player in the world that waits for you once you leave school.