Families often approach me about what can be done to help students stand apart given the competitive nature of college admissions. What I have found is quite simple: give students the opportunities and the space to develop their interests.
When students develop their genuine interests and passions, it helps them stand out.
It sounds simple, but it is true. Parents often ask about the right track or combination of activities, but there is no magic formula for success.
The answer is to spend time nurturing what your child loves to do.
College admissions counselors value passion and authenticity
Every single college admissions officer I have spoken to has said something along the lines of “be yourself.” I encourage students to be authentic and speak with a genuine voice. People reading essays and applications can feel when a student loves something or has a passion for it.
It’s the X-factor.
There is so much pressure on kids and parents today regarding education. The best way to alleviate that pressure of questioning every decision and feeling anxious about every choice is simply to let kids be themselves.
That being said, that doesn’t mean that sometimes we sit back and hope our kid will discover their love for something. Sometimes we need to gently push them out into the world.
How to Identify Your Child’s Genuine Interests
Sometimes our kids show us what they love through their words and actions, and sometimes, particularly in the teen years, it can be harder to discern. Here are a few tips to help your teen assess their genuine interests.
Keep a record of what lights their fire. One tip I have heard from parents, which I quite like, is encouraging kids to reflect on what they did in the past month and to keep a journal reflecting the things they loved and what they didn’t. You may be surprised when you find out your child didn’t love soccer but volunteering at the food bank was awesome Or, a certain class at school may have sparked an interest or they loved planning a trip.
Then, ask your student to share these reflections at a family night. Ask questions like, “what did we do in the past month that we enjoyed or was productive?” or “What would you like to do again?” Then make plans based on that. Encouraging students to reflect is a great way to help plan their future.
Model and share. Another tip is to model behavior for your student about what you as a parent, genuinely care about and love to do. Share what hobbies or interests inspire you, and invite your kids to join. Tell stories of interesting projects at work that make you proud and your work meaningful. Talk about people or books that motivate you.
Utilize educators. Encourage your students to talk with their teachers, particularly if they have an interest in the subject matter. If a student is interested in physics, they have someone right in school who also knows a lot about the subject. Ask them what they love about the subject and teaching it. What did they do with their summers? What did they do in college? What magazines did they read to explore new developments in the field?
Teachers can be a great resource in supporting a student’s passion projects. Can your student start a club to discuss the topic or do some fun projects? In our experience, if they can’t help you with a specific request, they will work hard to point you in the direction you need to go.
How to make yourself stand out from the crowd
If you’ve found your passion, now it’s time to dig even deeper.
Internships are a great way to learn more, develop skills, and show your interest level. When we talk to high school students about internships and trying different things outside of school, we rarely hear, “I regret doing that.”
Even if it doesn’t become their course of study or they find out they may not love the subject matter, no one says, “I wish I hadn’t tried this.”
All of this adds up to the fact that any experience provides a degree of wisdom about who you want to be and what you want to do. People regret inaction, not action.
There is value in finding out that you do not like something. It is the growth mindset approach. You can take something from every experience.
You are making connections and expanding your personal, social, and academic network whenever you try something. Everything you are doing may open up a door farther down the line and help you find a job or experience you love.
Utilize summer for relaxing and exploring. Summer should be a time to make memories. There should be some time for students to relax and clear their heads. There should be time to travel and be with friends.
Some people have the sense that there is an off-the-shelf, proscribed, and packaged way to spend summers, but I think summer is full of opportunities. Consider filling a portion of your summer with taking a class or some lessons on something you wanted to learn. Try to master a new skill or gain more knowledge about something you already love. Colleges and employers love knowing you have a thirst for knowledge and intellectual curiosity.
Give back. If there is one thing that colleges want, it’s engaged students. Students that want to be part of a community and give back.
Look for opportunities not that just fulfill service hours but ones that support the causes you care the most about. Students who self-organize litter picks at the beaches, for instance, get to spend the day somewhere they love, supporting the environment and spreading awareness. Kids should not feel restricted. Encourage them to create their own opportunities.
Keep exploring. If you haven’t found your passion yet, keep looking! Sometimes it pops up in the most unexpected place. If you know what you love, keep trying new things. Not just for your college application, but because finding joy will keep you happy and healthy your whole life through.