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The Futility of Work and The Utility of Pursuits

It’s during back-to-school season when I see two different glimmers in students’ eyes. One glimmer looks like an exploding planet; these students are anxious to begin their autumn routine because their schedules are regimented beyond belief. The 14-hour day will repeat 5 days a week, interrupted only by the 6-hour day and one homework day. They know every semester of their high school years matters, so they sign up for nearly every opportunity they can. Their days blur with activity after activity, all material-in-the-making for college applications.

The other glimmer glows like a dying star; these students are running on the adrenaline of the moment. They are excited, but not thrilled, about the prospects of becoming “the well-rounded student” by participating in nearly everything that fits in their schedules. There is a going-through-the-motions attitude about their long days because, well, they are doing what they have been told to do in order to succeed after high school.

Now, imagine both glimmers shining simultaneously from the same student. Often, I tell these students to slow down.

The glimmers shining simultaneously after a day-long service activity.

“Are you prepared to keep up this pace for 18 weeks?” I ask, channeling my cross country coach. I remember how he would chide us runners who ran the first mile too fast and burned out by the end of the race. It was always a risk bursting out the gate too quickly, not knowing when exactly our bodies would betray us, yet we always knew they would. Yet, we did it anyway.

The answer I receive from these students is usually affirmative, mostly hopeful. These students know that their race has no clear finish line. They are not measuring their race by time but rather a string of accomplishments and commitments. How many they believe they need, no one knows. Which are necessary and which are redundant, no one knows.

The life lesson this rat race instills in our students: Work is a means to an end. Whether you enjoy it or not is irrelevant to the fact that it must be done for your own good. And, when in doubt, more work is better than less work.

Waiting in my car before high school graduation. The glimmers had faded.

Throughout my work in college access, I have found myself the coach of the college admissions rat race. Families ask me about what their teenagers should and should not be doing to increase their chances of admission, and their assumption is almost always to dedicate more time to more activities.

I agree --- conditionally. With the gift of hindsight, I reflect on my high school days. I dedicated nearly every Saturday to a service activity or a UIL competition. During the weekday evenings, I would continue working on extracurriculars or academics until sunset. I had nearly no time to myself, but I was getting a lot of work done.

Clearly, I did not need to work every Saturday. I did not need to spend an hour per day accumulating “committed hours” to justify placing an extracurricular activity on my resume. I did not need to join that activity, either. Had I been kinder to myself, my college applications would have looked nearly the same. Even if I had one fewer activity on my activities list, it is statistically unlikely that this would have led to college admissions officers deeming me “not involved.”

It was too much work, and I regret doing much of it. My mental health would have improved dramatically, and my personal relationships would have benefitted from my regular sleep patterns. I made the mistake of working too hard and not pursuing hard enough.

What, then, were my pursuits if not for my myriad of extracurriculars?

Glowing after a writing competition.

Nowhere on my college applications did I share that I was a writer. When I did find time to write, I imitated Jack London and wrote thousands of words a week, resulting in dozens of short stories. I also did not share my coding skills. I had educated myself to create websites from the ground-up with HTML code, and I was proficient enough in Java to create simple video games. I loved video games.

Why did I not share these facts, and many more, on my college applications? Because I had believed the myth that my work is what truly mattered for college admissions, and these pursuits did not feel like work. How could they? I actually wanted to spend time on them.

So, when I sit across from a family and catch these glimmers in a student’s eyes, I remember the hours I wasted working rather than pursuing. If we can fill our days with activities we love rather than tasks we bear, then our eyes would be filled with sparks. And from these sparks, we can kindle pursuits that can become much more than “hobbies” or “passions.”

If anything, I believe my greatest moments as a coach of the college admissions rat race have been mentoring students on making their pursuits “matter” for college admissions. Usually, this begins with probing their existing commitments and reviewing “gaps,” such as a lack of leadership or community service. Then, we brainstorm methods to fill in these gaps.

Can a marketing student create an Instagram account raising awareness about mental health resources for students? Yes, and the student will have more control over their time compared to joining a high school club. Can the student incorporate this newfound brand as a nonprofit organization or an LLC? Yes, and the student will gain practical skills in business management. Can the student invite professionals from the community to aid in content creation? Yes, and the student will gain long-term mentors.

Not only does this sound amazing, but it also conveys a multi-faceted student to the college admissions office. The futility of work is that it feels like work, something to be done with and moved on from. The utility of pursuits lies in filling up our days with activities we look forward to working hard on and allowing our success to follow from time well-spent.

Preparing to run home after high school graduation.

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