There's a myth out there that you have to do a lot of fancy internships and extracurriculars in order to be attractive to admissions officers at elite schools.
That is FALSE.
Yes, that deserved all-caps. Why? Because that myth might prevent people who come from more modest backgrounds, people whose parents aren't well off or well connected, or people who have to work to support themselves, from bothering to apply to elite schools. And that's a terrible outcome.
Here's an example of that myth in action:
A column in today's New York Times talks about how high school students are shying away from "grunt" jobs, like waitressing, flipping burgers, or folding shirts at the Gap, because that would take them off the fast track to fancy colleges.
Here's the problem though. That article interviewed a former Yale professor about why students might be working fewer of those jobs:
Mr. Deresiewicz [author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which I reviewed here] told Op-Talk that admissions offices don’t give any weight to the kind of low-wage part-time job that Ms. Waldorf performed or that Mr. Ruhm and Mr. Baum studied. Instead, extracurricular activities and internships are a staple among applications and consistently impress admissions officers.
That simply isn't true. Ask any current or former admissions officer of an elite school and you'll get an earful. And from personal experience, I can tell you that when I was an admissions officer, I would always have preferred the person who worked at McDonald's over someone who did an internship that had been lined up by dad calling in favors with his golfing buddies. That's all else being equal, though, which it rarely is. But show me otherwise decent qualifications? No brainer.
Deresiewicz doesn't have any real admissions experience. He should stick to things he knows about, and it's a pity that the New York Times offers up his assumptions about elite admissions as authoritative.
I'll end on a happy note. Years ago, I was advising someone who wanted to go to a top graduate school. She had worked her way through college (where she had done remarkably well) by managing a fast food restaurant. She, too, had reservations about listing that job on her resume. Would admissions officers look down their noses, she wondered? Would it look bad that she hadn't had time to do lots of fancy extracurriculars?
Instead of hiding the fast food job, I persuaded her to showcase it, because of all the great things it demonstrated about her: she knew how to balance her work schedule with a demanding academic program; she knew how to manage and train people who, in many cases, were older than she was, and whose English skills were limited; she was trusted with a sizeable cash till and with payroll; she was willing to push up her sleeves and work a decidedly unglamorous job in order to reach her long-term academic and career goals.
I knew admissions officers would be very impressed, and I was right. She ended up going to a top graduate school.
Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. She and her team help college, law school, and MBA applicants make smart decisions about their higher education and navigate the application process. She is the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions and How to Prepare a Standout College Application, and also serves on the leadership team of the non-profit Service to School.