April 17, 2015

The High School Superstar Effect in College Admissions

Cal Newport featured me in his best-selling book, How to be a High School Superstar


My GPA and test scores weren't outstanding. They were actually below the norm.

However, Columbia University accepted me because I wowed them with an amazing story about attending a UN conference in South Africa the summer before my senior year of high school.

(My primary extracurricular involvement during high school was with SustainUS, an NGO composed of U.S. youth advocating for sustainable development. I was mainly involved in the group's efforts to lobby government delegates at United Nations conferences.)

Here's the text of our initial interview as he conducted research for his book:

Can you give me some sense of the path that began with you knowing nothing about the NGO to traveling to South Africa?

While emailing various humanitarian organizations for a summer internship to take place between sophomore and junior years of high school, I came across Physicians for Human Rights.

Although they had no summer internships for high school students available, they invited me to attend the Third Preparatory Committee meeting to the UN Special Session on Children because they were allowed to take a young person. I jumped at the opportunity. This was May 2001.

I attended the actual Special Session on Children the following year in June 2002 and spoke on a panel with executives from MTV.

As I was writing my speech for that panel during some downtime at a Model Congress convention in April 2002, I was approached by a girl who asked what I was doing. I explained the UN conference and panel.

After hearing me mention a UN conference, she told me about SustainUS and how it was organizing around the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa (which took place August-September 2002).

I became very involved in SustainUS over the next few months as one of its few high school members (most were in college). I participated in its email listserves, became part of the national Steering Committee, and I helped to plan its "Bet" Campaign encouraging politicians to reduce their CO2 emissions. As a liberal NGO, SustainUS is a consensus-based "do-ocracy," and the Internet allowed me to get involved as much as I wanted.

When the call for applications to represent SustainUS at the conference went out in June, I submitted one and was accepted as one of 8 SustainUS delegates. I was the only high schooler in the organization to go to World Summit in South Africa. The conference continued right through the beginning of senior year.

How did your schedule and stress levels compare to the students you knew who were doing the "do as many activities as possible" strategy to get into schools like Columbia?

Aside from SustainUS (which was obviously an extracurricular activity - and it was my primary extracurricular), I was heavily involved in a select few activities in high school, rather than several.

My schedule wasn't light, but it wasn't packed either. I attribute this to efficient use of time and delegating responsibility.

My in-school positions during senior year were:

Co-editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, President of the Environmental Club, and Co-Founder of Political Awareness Club.

School newspaper: only came out 4x a year, and the co-editor and section editors handled a lot of the work. Work for this mainly involved an intense week prior to publishing each issue.

A lot of Environmental Club activities were simply hiking trips, which teachers helped coordinate. The rest of the work for Environmental Club was SustainUS-related.

Political Awareness Club - just discussions on various political issues every now and then. Minimal week-to-week responsibilities.

They're impressive-sounding positions, but they didn't involve nearly as much time each week (or month!) as one might think.

I dropped a few of the clubs and extracurriculars I'd been part of junior year so that I'd have time to focus on clubs I was "in charge" of.

My stress level throughout high school was pretty low. I didn't worry about every little quiz or test in each class, as many of my peers did. I didn't pursue intensive out-of-school activities like All-County or All-State orchestra.

I ran track and cross country freshman through junior year, but dropped it senior year to focus on college apps and my in-school leadership. Even when I was in it, I did it more to stay in shape and socialize than to seriously compete, so it didn't stress me out, and I felt comfortable skipping a meet every now and then due to schoolwork or other obligations.

Paying attention in class, keeping up with homework, and developing good relationships with teachers ensured that I did well when it came to grades. I didn't watch TV throughout high school (except at friends' houses), and I "quit" AIM, which probably saved me a lot of time.


In case you missed it: How to Choose Impressive Extracurriculars for College Admissions

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