If you are a high school student in grades 9-11, there is a very good chance you have begun to receive unsolicited mailings from a range of organizations informing you of your nomination to be included in a special honor society or to attend summer leadership programs.
On the surface, such nominations are intriguing. In fact, what’s not to like about them?! The very notion that you have been nominated to receive recognition for your achievements or to take advantage of extraordinary, not to mention seemingly exclusive, life experiences is almost too good to be true. It’s good “ego food” and, who knows, maybe your participation will look good on your college applications.
Before you get too excited, let’s take a closer look at what is going on with these “nominations.” They are being sent to you by organizations—businesses, to be sure—that seek to capitalize on the eager hopes and, in some cases, insecurities, of young people as they apply to college. The content that is being offered might be valid, but it is rarely as substantive or meaningful as the nomination would suggest.
For example, a leadership week in Washington, DC could be a great experience (if you’ve never been to DC before), but it is certainly not exclusive. Doing volunteer work in Costa Rica sounds exotic and could make a difference in the lives of others—did I mention it sounds exotic! Hmmm. And a listing with an honor society or “who’s who” might make you feel good, but don’t expect it to garner much attention in the admission process.
Why, you ask, shouldn’t you feel good about all of this attention? Well, let’s start with the fact that the same “nomination” that you might have received was probably sent to tens of thousands of other students around the country.
How did these organizations or summer programs get your name? Well, it’s really not that hard. “Lead generation” is a multi-million dollar business as companies lurk in the shadows of the college selection process to secure data about prospective college applicants that they can then sell to colleges, universities, scholarship organizations and summer enrichment camps. Whenever you take a standardized test, you are given the opportunity to provide biographic information for distribution to colleges. The same is true when you register with many online college search engines or scholarship competitions. You are, perhaps, unwittingly, giving your information to companies who will then sell it to the folks who are bombarding you with promotional pieces.
Among the companies engaged in lead generation are those who will solicit names from high school teachers who, although they might not have direct knowledge regarding the program opportunity, don’t want to deny their students the chance to participate. More likely, though, sponsors will buy lists of names that have been academically pre-qualified to some degree—and that is where the testing agencies (College Board, ACT) stand to make a lot of money by simply by selling your information.
I’d like to offer the following tips, then, for your consideration as you evaluate the nominations you receive in the coming weeks.
- You should never have to pay for a credential. True honors are earned and will rightfully be bestowed upon you.
- Admission officers are wary of volunteer experiences that can be bought. Remember, they are cynics—and the cynic will see “vacation” where you had hoped they would see “volunteerism.”
- If you are truly interested in doing community service over the summer—or any time, for that matter—look for opportunities to make a difference in your own community. Participate in a Habitat for Humanity project. Serve meals to the homeless. Become a Big Brother/Big Sister. The hallmark of service is selflessness.
- Choose activities that will be truly enriching. As you contemplate your options for discretionary involvement, do so as though applying to college is not in the picture. Choose those opportunities that will help you learn and grow. Admission officers look for authenticity in the character of the candidates they are considering. Let your choices be a window into the qualities you possess.
Be wary of subscribing to special academic programs/camps for high school students on college or university campuses. Keep in mind that, first and foremost, these programs are offered because the host institutions have empty beds to fill over the summer. Do the math. If a school can fill the beds with eager high school students over the course of two or three summer sessions, it will have succeeded in bringing thousands of students to its campus—a financial boon to the institution. Will any of those students be assured an advantage in the subsequent admission process? It’s highly unlikely. Making choices simply to impress admission committees will come across as gratuitous resume building. If you choose such a program, do so because it has particular meaning to you—it represents an investment in you and your personal growth.