Because of the “am I worthy?” mindset, many students spend a lot of time and effort building up a résumé. In order to stand out, they burn themselves out. They join too many organizations, spread their volunteer hours all over the place, take academic shortcuts to keep up their G.P.A., and abuse “study drugs” to make up for anxiety and lost sleep. Thinking about your real interests and developing skills related to those interests are going to be just as effective for college admissions—and a lot more effective for making you a happy and productive person.
If you’ve worked to get yourself out of the “am I worthy?” mindset and start thinking of the college search as a search for a good relationship, then this foundation will make perfect sense.
You’re not trying to convince an anonymous college admissions administrator that you’re worthy. You’re not making decisions based on a vague idea of “what colleges want.” You’re not mindlessly accumulating volunteer hours or honor society memberships just so you can list them on an application. Instead, you’re working intensely on understanding what kind of a person you are and what kind of environment is a great fit for you. Instead, you’re thinking about what is interesting to you and what is interesting about you. Instead of building up a résumé, you’re building up a meaningful life.
Does that mean you can stop studying or taking hard classes, because you’re not a résumé? No. If you’re going to college to pursue upper-level academics, you have to keep working at your current academics.
Does that mean you can stop volunteering, because you’re not a résumé? Sorry, no. Schools like to see volunteering because it means that you’re part of a community and give back to your community. That’s important to schools, and it ought to be important to you. But what you can do is think about your talents and interests and find ways to volunteer that use and build up those talents and interests. What you can do is stop signing up for every little thing, whether it’s meaningful or not, because "volunteer hours look good on a résumé."
Does that mean you can quit your school clubs? Drop out of your extracurriculars? Stop reading? Be a jerk to your teachers? Nope. The greatest indicator of college success is high school success, so you don’t want to stop being successful. But here’s the magical thing: once you know to think about being an interesting and successful person, the résumé-building takes care of itself. When you’re no longer stressed about filling up a résumé with impressive-sounding stuff, you can find the time and motivation to actually do impressive stuff.
Once you’re thinking of yourself more as a person and less as a resume, you might actually find that you’re working harder than you were before. However, this only happens because you’ve found an passion that leads you to go above and beyond. You ma,y however, find that you’re getting more sleep and feeling less anxious—without sacrificing your future. That’s a wonderful spot to be in.
And here’s a great place to start, one that you might not associate with college applications: pleasure. Devote serious time and effort—keep a journal, have discussions, stare out the window and just think—to understanding what brings you pleasure. And I don’t mean to encourage that “follow your passion” advice that is out there. Most people don’t take jobs that fit into the “My Passion” box, but most people find ways to be happy and productive nonetheless. Just begin by thinking about what brings you pleasure—put it into a single word that ends with –ing. Reading. Exploring. Playing. Dancing. Things like that. Think a lot about how it brings you pleasure, why it brings you pleasure, and when it brings you pleasure. Think a lot about the skills and specialized knowledge that comes with that pleasure. Think about how that pleasurable activity is important to society and not just yourself. This is a great path to thinking deeply about who you are, what you have to offer, and what’s important to you. It may feel indulgent at first to simply think about your own pleasure, but in the long run it will be much more useful to you—in your college search and life—than poring over U.S. News and World Report’s latest “Best Colleges” list.