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Create a Great College Essay from a Time-Wasting Hobby

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“Why are you wasting your time with that? Is your homework done?”

That familiar refrain is probably heard thousands of times a day in households across the country. Parents think teens spend too many hours playing video games or drawing a graphic novel or knitting. But what if that seemingly impractical interest has some tangible benefit and even is the key to a future career? How do teens turn their “time wasters” into an asset on their high school resumes and college essays?

If you know what you love, do something with it.

“Nothing sells more than demonstration,” says Jill Tipograph, founder/director of Everything Summer, an independent school consulting firm in New York City that connects teens with summer programs and provides enrichment coaching. Explore your interest, she says, and show how it has grown during your high school years.

You don’t have to be the football captain or an award-winning inventor to stand out – it is the individual, not the accolades or rankings, that schools care about, notes Kristina Dooley, founder and president of Estrela Consulting, a boarding school and college placement service based in Ohio. When she works with a young client, Dooley says, she aims to “bring out what it is about them that they don’t realize is amazing.”

Showcase your amazingness

Here are four pieces of advice from Tipograph and Dooley, as well as from Duke University’s dean of undergraduate admissions, Christoph Guttentag, on how to dazzle colleges.

1. Do things that are worth doing.

Have a purpose when pursuing an interest, says Guttentag. Be able to explain to someone else why your hobby is important to you and why the amount of time you spend on it is justified.

2. Be engaged.

Students should be engaged with their classmates and their social, academic and cultural communities, Guttentag says.

Sharing your skills and what you love not only contributes something positive to the community but helps teachers or leaders of clubs get to know you and possibly write you a recommendation for college, adds Tipograph.

Summer programs, work experiences and high school internships can help a student develop skills, figure out what they truly want to do – and also figure out what they don’t want, Dooley says.

3. Do things that matter to you.

Don’t pad your college resume with things that you think admissions reps are looking for.

Anything done by rote is obvious when students answer interview questions and write college essays on applications, say Guttentag and Dooley.

But hobbies and interests that stir a student’s passions can show what someone values or explain their thought processes and creative outlets, Dooley says.

4. Make an impact.

Have you made yourself or things around you better by doing what you do?

Students should be thinking about how they can add something worthwhile to their communities.

Keep in mind, though, that you “don’t have to be conquering the world,” Tipograph says. You can find out what kind of commuity service or activity is available at your school and figure out what is needed. A student who is shy could augment a club instead of creating one.

“One of the things we try to be careful with is to not inadvertently disadvantage the introvert,” Guttentag says. Extroverts and introverts are equally valued and should do whatever they do “with purpose, intensity and meaning.”

5. Sell yourself.

Think of ways to turn your passion into something practical.

• A student who had a love of movies and an interest in writing developed a film review column for the school newspaper and was named the film editor.

• A talented musician worked with a nonprofit that uses music education to keep inner-city kids on the right track. The student taught violin and organized fundraising drives.

• An avid gamer who had no luck getting admitted into schools in his first round of applications was accepted into one of the top game-design programs. An administrator for online gaming communities serving hundreds of people, he used this leadership experience to set himself apart.

• Without any time for clubs, a student who wanted to major in education spent her time working as a nanny and used her experience to write her college application essay.

• A theater-lover who auditioned for lead roles in plays but was regularly cast in the chorus switched gears to a possible focus on journalism, writing reviews of local productions.

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Written by Kay Keough

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Kay Keough is a freelance writer, editor and designer based in Sandwich, Mass. She covers arts and entertainment and community news in the Cape Cod area, designs information graphics for data-driven stories and copy-edits a variety of publications. She is a technology enthusiast with several years of experience as a tech journalist and in her spare time is an improviser, painter, baker and candlestick maker. She can be reached at k_keough@yahoo.com.

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