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The Case for an End to the Résumé Arms Race

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So, how many of you did something this summer because you thought it would look good on your college applications? Unanimous show of hands? I thought so.

In applying for colleges, students are often told by parents and counselors to do what they feel is right. However, this advice is much easier said than done. It can be difficult to find a balance between what feels right because we like it and what feels right for putting on a college application. In an ideal world, these would be the same thing.

When I visited colleges this summer, I heard almost every admissions officer say that they want to admit a class that is well-rounded, rather than a class of individuals who are all clones of one another.  However, many students are still convinced that only a certain profile will get them into a given college. This leads them to beef up a resume rather than act out of out of personal interest.

Last summer, I convinced myself that I wanted to work in a lab because I thought it might be interesting. However, I will own up to the fact that it was mainly for my resume. On paper, working at a lab looks pretty good. In reality, I stood with two other people for five hours at a time, screwing caps onto bottles of purified water.

After the first day, I realized that I wouldn’t learn anything from the job. I had dragged myself into something I hated simply because it might look good on my college applications. I persuaded myself to work what was technically a lab job, but in return I threw away time that could have been spent pursuing genuine passions.

I’m fortunate because my parents aren’t pressuring me to do things for my college applications. A friend from home told me about a meeting with his college counselor in which his mother fretted over his lack of volunteer work. “I was a straight A student with a huge AP load, I had a 34 ACT, my crew placed 4th in nationals my junior year, I was vice president of the student body and I had won a few national awards for my ceramics.”

But his mother still asked, “What should he do this summer to make him ‘special’ in the admission process? Some community service?’”  His college counselor convinced his mother that he didn’t need to “check that box,” as many believe is necessary. Instead, he spent the summer doing what he loved: rowing.

What if I had spent that lab time doing things I love? Would I still look good to admissions officers? Maybe the answer is no, but at least they would know the real me. Chances are if a college doesn’t like what I have to offer, then I probably wouldn’t like being there anyway. This summer I worked two jobs, one for pay and one as a volunteer, and I loved how I spent my time. If a college would rather see me working as a lab assistant than as a camp counselor, then count me out.

If you are doing research in a lab or attending an academic program out of genuine interest, more power to you. However, if you simply feel obligated, perhaps you should try pursuing your legitimate interests. If you are doing what you love, the “right” school will be drawn to you.

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