The Zen of Joining

The Keys to Academic Success

What’s a kid to do these days? Why, everything, of course. Can’t that get out of hand quickly? Yes, yes it can.

It is an indisputable fact that high school kids compete to appear more involved in extracurricular activities for college recruiters. In effect, they are caught up in an "arms race" of joining. Just look at your neighbor kid’s resume. Some say that this scramble to the top has turned our young people into little consultants. They are always on, too eager to please, 'in it to win it' rather than in it for the experience. The notion that this is the correct road to college for every young person is false in my opinion.

Hill resident Colenn Berracasa, now a Master’s of Public Policy student at George Washington, tried out no fewer than a dozen activities, clubs, and organizations as a high school freshman.

“I split it up between topics I knew I would like, like French Club, things I thought I would enjoy, like volunteer organizations, and stuff that didn’t sound that great but that I thought I should probably do anyway, like sports,” Berracasa laughed. “I tried out for soccer my freshman year and definitely wasn’t qualified in any way; I didn’t realize it was this super-competitive thing.”

Berracasa stuck with three or four clubs throughout her freshman year and lucked into a leadership role when the all the officers of Volunteers in Action graduated and she found herself elected Co-President as just a sophomore. She credits this leadership experience with helping her get her first paying job out of high school, and her depth of involvement with the organization with helping her discover her love for public policy.

“I was on the volunteer side of several non-profits, and got a feel for how that worked. That’s actually how a lot of my classmates in the GW Trachtenberg School got started in public policy: by experiencing community involvement as high schoolers,” Berracasa explains. “Everything feeds into the next thing. Whatever volunteer experience you have in high school is going to help you get good jobs in college, too."

However, Berracasa, an aspiring wonk, cautions kids against doing things just because it’ll make them look good.

“I said yes to a lot of one-off things that took up a lot of time and weren’t really worthwhile, because my heart wasn’t in it. Don’t say yes just because you’re trying to be nice or you think it’ll look good to colleges!” Berracasa says.

Ultimately, the student's goal should be leadership. This requires commitment rather than just participation. An hour a week of curing cancer isn’t going to impress colleges, who want to see depth of involvement and a demonstrated passion for learning.

It’s true that greater involvement in fewer activities still equals a big time commitment, and that’s where improved time management and study habits come in. Conveniently, these or similar organizational skills are the same ones required to be successful in most careers.

Paul Rivas is the founder of Smith Rivas Academic Coaching & Consulting. He can be contacted at

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