My high school experience was basically one giant “make it work” moment. (Project Runway fans, I hope you read that in a Tim Gunn voice.)
Here’s the scoop: My school offered very few Advanced Placement and upper level courses, and even though I challenged myself as much as I could, doubt and worry always seemed to take the wheel (as they often do during the college application/admission process). I constantly feared being compared to applicants from other schools who were in the IB program or had taken every AP class ever invented.
Determined to squeeze the most out of my high school experience – despite the classes and resources I did not have access to – I took matters into my own hands by stepping up as a leader in multiple organizations and investing my time in clubs I was passionate about. Looking back on high school (especially my senior year), I have come to the conclusion that you cannot let the resources you lack define who you are as a student or individual. Here is how I made it work – and how you can, too.
Maximize the opportunities you do have
In order to play up my strengths as a college applicant – and to further challenge myself through activities I enjoyed, I stepped up as a leader in my school extracurriculars. My leadership experiences in high school varied from serving as editor in chief of the yearbook to being a two-time officer of a student community service organization. These opportunities taught me how to effectively collaborate with my peers, gave me multiple creative outlets, and demonstrated to me the value of generosity.
Hint: On the topic of high school involvement, keep in mind that quality is greater than quantity; colleges would rather see an applicant seriously committed to a few extracurriculars than a student who was semi/barely involved in every club the school had to offer. Do not overload yourself with responsibilities simply to build your resume! Your high school experience will be much more enjoyable (and worthwhile) if you are actively involved and show leadership in a few activities that interest you.
Additionally, if your school doesn’t have a club you are interested in (i.e. language club, a school newspaper or online magazine, etc.), start one! Nothing says “go-getter” like a person who spearheads their own organization. Odds are there are other students who feel the same way but have not taken the initiative to form the group. Do not be afraid to reach out to teachers or faculty members for help in turning your vision into an opportunity for additional learning (and fun!).
Look beyond the classroom
Even though it may seem like learning is limited to the physical school building, many of the best resume-building opportunities for self-growth and education lie beyond the cinderblock classroom walls. Pick up an activity that is not only enjoyable, but one that will provide tangible growing and learning experiences (and possibly great references for the future). For example, I combined my love for writing with a community service activity; I volunteered with a non-profit organization benefiting a local hospital, where I wrote press releases and articles about the department’s campaigns and their impact on the community. Not only did I use my strengths to help a worthy cause, but I picked up new skills and had the experience of working in a professional environment.
Another way to expand your learning opportunities is to attend a summer educational camp or program. Many colleges and universities offer camps for high schoolers – some are designed for students with specific interests (i.e. marine biology, writing or journalism workshops, math and technology, athletics, etc.), while other camps may feature a series of classes on different topics. I attended the Duke TIP summer studies program, where I took a three-week class on screenwriting and film, a course I would never have had access to at my high school.
Similar pre-college programs are amazing opportunities to not only make friends from across the nation with similar interests, but to prepare yourself for campus life and broaden your horizons outside of the typical classroom setting. Whether you’re looking for a program that is competitive, less selective, close to home, far away, one week, or one month – with a little research, you are bound to find one that is right for you.
Find a mentor and ask for advice
During my senior year of high school, the guidance office was practically an emergency room waiting area of students concerned with scheduling conflicts, transcript tragedies, and mid-semester meltdowns. If I learned one thing in the past four years, it was that in order to have my burning college admissions questions answered, I had to be my own guidance counselor.
My advice: If you are in a similar scenario, try reaching out to a current or former student of a potential college. If you do not have any personal or mutual connections, the admissions department of that school may be able to help get you in contact with a student or alumni. I am thankful to have had many contacts over the past year who have helped me learn more about my potential universities and have offered honest pre-college advice.
Stay focused on your dreams
I once heard the quote, “Don’t let doubt and fear stop you from doing what you love.” The majority (if not all) of the worries are in your head. Invest your time in clubs and activities that matter to you, make the most of what you have, and don’t compare yourselves to other students. No matter where you come from, what high school you go to, or how many AP classes you took, know that as long as you have done your best, your hard work and persistence will not go unnoticed.