Sunday, March 28, 2010
Sh*t I Don't Understand: Extracurricular Activities
Spring is descending upon us. There are four college basketball teams left standing, and at the start of next week the sweet sound of "Play Ball!" will be heard for the first time since November 4. Springtime also brings about a period of time I like to call Application Season. Ambitious and eager high school seniors are nervously awaiting the big envelopes in the mail from colleges all around the country, while reality-bitten college seniors are attending career fairs and beefing up their resumés in hopes of getting a job that has anything to do with the stuff they've been studying for the past four years. Both groups have had hammered into their brains the importance of extracurricular activities and how they "make you stand out." In the last installment of this series for the time being, I'd like to take a look at just how hollow all this extracurricular activity BS really is.
I'll put out the caveat out there first - I know that there are plenty of people who did tons of extracurricular stuff in high school and college and actually cared about them/put a great deal of effort into them. Those aren't the people I'm talking about. I'm talking about the people who join a club just because it might look good on an application or resumé, as well as the people who actually evaluate said applications and fail to differentiate between the genuine and the bogus. Hell, we've all done it. I was in the French Club in high school, which entailed little more than signing my name on a piece of paper in French class and showing up to a 20-minute meeting 4 times a year, 3 of which I'd usually duck out of early to get to football practice or to the weight room.
That's part of my point. What does having an extracurricular activity on an application really constitute? It's impossible to tell from an evaluation standpoint. All colleges love seeing National Honor Society on applications, but all being in NHS in high school really meant was you got good (not necessarily great) grades, you were at least somewhat involved and didn't just go straight home after school every day, and you never showed up to school wasted and never got caught with weed in your car. For that you got a nice little yellow thingy to wear on your graduation gown and the right to slap a shiny "Member of National Honor Society" on your college applications. Riiiiight. I was in NHS for 3 years in high school and I think I've done more work cleaning my room than I ever did as part of that prestigious outfit. But yet, there it was in bold letters on all my applications back in the day.
What I hope is that college admissions offices and job recruiters understand is that not all activities are created equal. For instance, being on the bowling team in high school is not the same as playing a sport like football or wrestling. I shouldn't have to go further into that. In addition, some people turn themselves into flat-out hypocrites by their membership in certain clubs, like a few kids I knew who were in Students Against Drunk Driving (aka S.A.D.D.) in high school and ended up getting DUI's. I guess you weren't paying attention at those meetings, were you? But hey, maybe your days spent as a member of S.A.D.D. will score you some points with the DMV when you try to get your license back!
The extracurricular activity garbage is a flaw of a system where a large number of candidates must be considered in a small amount of time. It's impossible to personally get to know everyone who is applying to your school or your company, so you have to take as many things into consideration as you can, especially when the top factors (GPA, test scores, prior work experience, etc.) are a wash. But it doesn't sit well to think that a group of decision makers are sitting at a table somewhere saying, "OK, we're down to two candidates for this position. Applicant A and Applicant B have similar grades and numbers, but Applicant B helped start up the Scott Baio Fan Club at his college! That's got to make him a better employee than the other guy. I think we have our winner right there, our work here is done! Who's got the first round at Happy Hour?"
But I guess that's the world we live in. I pledged with a guy who treated our fraternity as just another resumé builder and pretty much disappeared once we got in. Sure, he got himself into medical school, but to me that's not worth everyone disliking you and your name being a punchline for years, even after college is over. It's a blatant insult to all the people who bust their ass in earnest to be a part of something that's going to have value for a long time. In a perfect world, there would be a way to sniff out the mere "just a name on a list" people so they could get a big F-you from prospective employers and colleges. After all, who is bound to be more of an asset to a company or a school - a person who stays on the right track and gives full effort to the things he sets his mind to, or a system-manipulating weasel who uses his peers as stepping stones? Call me idealistic but I'd rather be genuine and give my best effort at a few things than go half-ass at a bunch of activities just so I can litter my application with papier-mâché.