The Washington Post

Expanding interests outside class is textbook move to best college experience

- Jay Mathews

College applicants know how important high school extracurri­cular activities are in selective admissions. Hardly anyone is telling them, however, what power the activities they pursue during college can have over the rest of their lives.

I often think about my undergradu­ate days. If you are heading for college you should know the most important stuff often has little to do with the classes your parents, or perhaps just you, are paying for.

I remember munching an ice cream sandwich from the vending machine in the student newspaper office at 2 a.m. as I planned my next article. At 10 a.m. I was dozing on a ratty couch in the same building, surrounded by litter that would have appalled my mother. At 5 p.m. I hammered out a story for the newspaper on a decrepit, noisy typewriter. (Perhaps you have seen one in a museum.) At 9 p.m. I slipped into the managing editor’s office and closed the door so I could kiss her.

Adults you know have similar fond recollecti­ons, probably more than you have time for. Listen to them anyway. Experience­s outside of class may have far more impact on your life than your grades or your textbooks or whatever your professor said in Philosophy 1B.

Among the many guides being published on the college selection process, I have had trouble finding any that help applicants locate schools with extracurri­cular activities in tune with their dreams.

“I don’t know of a resource on extracurri­culars at state schools specifical­ly, nor of one for private colleges,” said Connie Livingston, a former admissions director at Brown who is now a lead counselor at the Empowerly college admissions counseling service. She said Empowerly counselors can help track down such opportunit­ies.

But your own efforts may bear more fruit.

Check with friends and family who know people who work in fields that interest you. For instance, universiti­es such as Northweste­rn, Missouri and Columbia have great reputation­s for teaching journalism. But once I started at The Post I discovered some of our biggest talents came from schools I had never heard of, such as the State University of New York at Buffalo. Where you go to college is less important than how hard your favorite extracurri­cular activity inspired you to work.

What I see missing in discussion­s of college is the critical mass of young people on campus playing around with wild ideas. The Hewlett-packard company, for instance, grew from imaginativ­e chats between two undergradu­ates after electrical engineerin­g class. In this century, stories of sophomores coming up with great ideas during dining hall exchanges are part of business lore.

Campus relationsh­ips have launched innovation­s and created jobs everywhere — in music, film, television, medicine, rocketry, energy, publishing, economics, real estate and the many parts of the internet I don’t understand. Because of the web, such student ferment continued even when colleges were shut down by the pandemic.

On the websites of any large state university you will find clubs and associatio­ns that bring together students and faculty with fresh ideas. Fraterniti­es and sororities, I am told, can also lead to useful contacts and management experience. After-class jobs may be instructiv­e. Even athletic department­s are turning talented arrivals into marketing experts as the new name, image and likeness (NIL) rules give them a chance to make money long before they turn pro.

The mega-success Facebook began when an undergradu­ate created an online guide to the campus community, one of many internet ideas erupting on his campus. If there is a college that interests you, contact its student associatio­ns and ask what’s going on. Even an unsolicite­d email to a wellknown person whose work you admire may bring good advice on colleges, since such people like being listened to by the young.

The college guides don’t appreciate the overwhelmi­ng power of young people living and studying together for the first time, organizing their days without having to check with their parents. In such circumstan­ces, both creative and romantic sparks fly.

The managing editor I pursued in college eventually agreed to marry me on graduation day. We have not built any billion-dollar companies, but we have had good lives. That is partly because of how we used the glorious free time we discovered in our late teens. That isn’t often mentioned in college catalogues, but it should be.

If there is a college that interests you, contact its student associatio­ns and ask what’s going on. Even an unsolicite­d email to a well-known person whose work you admire may bring good advice on colleges.

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