As an independent educational consultant, I have had the opportunity to work with a wide range of students from high schools across the country. As I get to know these students and brainstorm with them on topics for their personal statements for their college applications, I always ask them to describe a person who has had a significant influence on their lives and why. Of course, the most common answer is a parent or other family member, but a close second is a teacher or advisor that has taught them a key lesson in life, pushed them to be more than they thought possible, or saw something in them that nobody else had. The interactions that teachers, club advisors, coaches, guidance counselors, and school administrators have with students can have remarkable, lasting impact on students and help shape their life philosophy and sense of self. This impact also helps students prepare for college because these life experiences, self-insights, and confidence help make them stronger applicants.
Below are the top 10 themes that emerge:
1. Let students take the lead.
Colleges look for meaningful leadership in activities, and the more opportunities you provide for students to take the lead, the better they can develop their leadership style. Mary described her positive experience with student government.
“The only limit placed on us is ourselves. The teachers are there to help, but ultimately we set the agenda, develop a plan for fundraising, and work together to make it happen. This year we raised over $6,000, a record for the school and #2 in the state, because we were able to come up with interesting ideas. We held a car wash, a parent fundraiser, a dance-a-thon, and several school-wide events that brought us together as a community.”
This untethered opportunity to imagine and lead provided my student with a strong sense of self and accomplishment. She lauded the teachers’ ability to step back and let the students lead the club.
2. Model good leadership through mentorship and strong communication.
Students look to you as school leaders and examples of how they want to lead. Hannah talked about her experience with her history teacher and track coach in her college essay.
“He always used to tell us in class not to cut corners. I didn’t really understand this until I started running track. In this context, he repeated that if we cut corners we only hurt ourselves. I took this to heart and started running the full length of the course. I started studying harder in all of my classes, and because of his constant communication of this concept in the classroom and on the track field, I understood exactly what he meant. This idea became my mantra and I carried it out in all aspects of my life.”
3. Encourage balanced schedules based on student interests and talents.
All students have their own strengths and weaknesses, and as advisors it is crucial to help them understand what they are and develop schedules that accentuate their strengths. For example, if a student is particularly strong in math and science, you can encourage them to take honors or AP classes in those subjects and not feel the need to overload themselves in other areas. The key is to help them find the right balances, because each student has a different threshold for work and rigor.
4. Identify opportunities for scholarships or contests.
There are numerous contests, both local and national, in various disciplines such as the Intel Science Talent Search, The Scholastic Alliance for Young Artists and Writers or the National Council for Teachers of English. Many states also have Governor Schools for various disciplines that students can apply to during their junior year. Create a list of contests or scholarships in your subject area and encourage students to apply for these contests early and often so they get used to putting themselves out there. It is also great if the guidance office can serve as a central repository for all of the contests. These can be highlighted on the school’s website by subject area. Students are more apt to apply for a contest if a teacher or guidance counselor makes the suggestion.
5. Develop opportunities for independent studies.
Some of my students’ most enriching academic experiences have come from doing independent studies in the form of a senior project, a science research program, or interdisciplinary research project. One student had the opportunity to do such a project that spanned over the course of his high school career through a science research program offered at his high school. He learned how to conduct scientific research, developed a computational database, arranged a science internship in a lab in Greece, and became an Intel semi-finalist. Another student is developing a historical archive of his high school’s theater program going back to the 1800s. This project came into fruition through the support of his history teacher and his guidance counselor. These types of opportunities promote intellectual curiosity, which helps students in the college application process. These independent studies work best when teachers, administrators, and guidance support them through communication and flexibility in scheduling.
6. Urge students to share their talents with the community.
Students often ask me what type of community service they should get involved in. I encourage them to share their talents with the community and do something that reflects their interests and passions. The tennis coach for one of my students provided an opportunity for his team to teach tennis to kids with special needs and help out in the Special Olympics. A theater troupe reached out to the community by performing for underprivileged communities for free. One of the jazz bands plays annually at the Susan B. Komen walk for cancer. These students benefited greatly from these experiences and saw how they could make a difference by sharing their talent with the greater community.
7. Think beyond the classroom.
Integrate real-world experiences into the classroom by organizing field trips, developing partnerships with the community or local colleges, and inviting guest speakers such as scientists, writers, psychologists, etc. to expose students to different career options. A few years ago a couple of the science teachers organized a field research trip to South Africa for students to do environmental field research. Not only did the students get first-hand scientific research, but they also benefitted from experiencing a different culture. The AP government teacher arranged for students to have an internship with a local congressman for the last month of class after the AP exam was completed. These types of experiences benefit students by linking what they learn in class to the real world.
8. Push kids to engage in things beyond high school.
Colleges like to see that students are engaged not only in their high school community but the community at large. If students are talented in music, encourage them to audition for a regional, state, or All-State chorus, band, or orchestra. Athletes can try out for All-County or All-State teams. Top students in Model UN or Youth and Government can attend regional and state conferences. This gives them access to a diverse student body and gives them a taste of what it will be like in college.
9. Suggest meaningful summer experiences that align with their interests.
Summer is a great opportunity to fill in the gaps or dive deeper into areas of interest. I have worked with students who have used the summer to beef up their community service, participate in athletic recruiting camps for their sport, attend Girls or Boys State, explore engineering, do an internship at a newspaper, or work in a yogurt store. All of these experiences add to the richness of a candidate. If your school uses Naviance, encourage the kids to look at the enrichment programs feature that lets students search summer opportunities by interest. Many pre-college programs also offer financial aid to those students who have a financial need.
10. Say yes
When a student approaches you to do something novel, find ways to support and not discourage. One of my clients felt strongly about providing food to the local food bank by creating “Food Bank Friday,” where students could drop off canned food each week. When she first approached the principal at her school, the principal categorically refused, citing numerous reasons why this could not work. This did not deter my student. She forged ahead and found a solution to all of the principal’s objections until she got the program approved. It ultimately became an integral part of the school and she was able to provide food to her local food bank.