Getting to College 101: Teenagers and Time Well Spent

By Kristin Thomas, College Consultant & Guest Contributor

It is no surprise that colleges want to know what your student did with their time while in high school.  No, I won’t be discussing the pros & cons of the social scene in high school or hours plugged into headphones listening to music or playing computer games. I’m talking about the kinds of things that they will be writing on a resume or on the “activities” section of their application to colleges: extracurriculars, clubs, sports, community service, work. There is no correct list of mandatory activities nor is there a magical formula that will guarantee college admittance. There are however, some ideas that might help you guide your student in deciding how they spend their time.


When I went through this process myself many decades ago (not to date myself), colleges were telling us it was the “Jack-of- all-trades”, the student who had done it all, that they were looking for. Now the emphasis is on sticking with something over time. Has your child found something they love to do? Do they need encouragement to try something new in search of a passion?

Often a pattern arises in a student’s interests and activities. Perhaps they find they like hands-on activities, or working with children, or leadership roles. If they have a passion academically or an interest, does it cross over into their choice of summer, work (internship), and/or volunteer plans? You are doing your child a huge favor if you can help them recognize things about themselves and encourage them in the right direction.


For the more selective colleges, being different can be a huge bonus. How can your teenager stand out? A quirky passion, an unusual pastime or a creative endeavor that isn’t typical of a high school student. Often these are adult activities, not your typical teenage fare.


Children are so different. I still can’t get over how my three children from the same parents are such unique individuals. How much do you push, or do you hold back? As a lifelong multi-tasker, I still have a chip on my shoulder that the orchestra conductor made me choose between sports and playing the cello my freshman year. On the other hand, one of the saddest things I see in my business are kids completely burned out on activities. Kids who pushed themselves – or were pushed by well meaning adults – to do more than they can handle.

In a nutshell…

  • Quality over quantity of activities. Although, if they are still exploring, it’s OK to dabble.
  • Have them develop  a passion – and even a theme – if possible.
  • Stand out from the crowd.
  • Have your child be themselves. Help them know themselves. Try to avoid doing things just because they think it looks good.

Fellow College Advisor Steve Singer, who writes for the New York Times column The Choice, suggests that students “market” themselves by being themselves, rather than trying desperately to “beat the system”. The best thing for parents to do is help their teenager to find activities that they enjoy and find meaning in. And quite possibly, if they actually enjoy what they are doing, these extra activities can relieve some of the stress of applying to all those Colleges (well, maybe be a little).

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