During my few years as a college guidance counselor, the one aspect that has captured my mind the most and that I consider being the very premise of the college application process is this most fundamental question: what do colleges really care about in an applicant?

I would often hear admissions officers saying, rather emphatically, “We are looking at admitting a person, not a set of scores.” Some others would say, “Be yourself. Your authentic voice matters.” Still, some others would say, “Your personal qualities should come through the application.”

As I put together these pieces, bit-by-bit, a rather blurred image faded out, and concrete imagery set in.

Ultimately, it boils down to two things:

  • Will you be able to handle the academic coursework?
  • How much you’ll benefit the school community as a student and beyond?

I would like to dedicate this space to answer the second question, which really is the circuitous one. This question typically generates a string of other questions in a student’s mind: How can I and should I benefit others? Is it even possible? What would others consider as a benefit to them? The lack of adroitness in handling this seemingly simple question stems from living in a world where only focusing on the self seems to be the natural and instinctive way to survive. What one does not realize is that when one only thinks about oneself, one’s tendency to disregard and disrespect others becomes alarmingly high, which means that one’s actions will be driven by greed and anger and will thus be destructive.

This brings me to something beautiful that I came across in 2016.

In his system of value-creating pedagogy, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi describes three different ways of life as human beings: dependent, independent, and contributive.

In a dependent way of life, a person is typically unable to sense their own potential, giving up on any real possibility of transforming their current situation and instead passively accommodating themselves to others and their immediate surroundings or to the larger trends in society. In an independent way of life, people have the desire to find their own way forward but tend to have little interest in those with whom they are not directly involved.

For his part, Makiguchi asserted that the way of life to strive for is a contributive one. “Authentic happiness cannot be realized except through sharing the joys and sufferings of the masses as a member of society.”

In this above piece, I found my answer. When colleges look to understand how a student can benefit the school community, they are essentially looking for evidence of the student being contributive. They want to know whether the student understands that the greatness of any individual lies in how palpably aware they are of the inter-connectedness between their lives and those of others, that actual happiness means happiness of self and others.

So, how should a high-school student begin to think about others?

Ask yourself simple questions, “Could I have been more caring toward my parent?”, “Could I have been more respectful toward a teacher?”, “Could I have been a better team player on a school project?”, “Could I have looked out more for my sibling?” This constant self-reflection in seemingly mundane occurrences is the magical key to unlock the good qualities that reside in our lives.

Colleges look for evidence of this in the activities section, personal essay, letters of recommendation, personal interview. Accomplishments are one thing but they are equally interested in knowing if the student is someone who is constantly thinking of others and taking everyone along with him. Only then will the student be someone who will truly bring benefit to the school community and beyond. So, the next time you have an opportunity to babysit your younger brother/sister or to pass a smile at a neighbour and to check on him or to spend a full day with your grandparents and make them feel loved, grab it with both hands. You will be amazed by what you discover about yourself. You will be amazed by how when you bring these personal qualities/strengths to school projects, classroom settings, and any extra-curricular activities, all these activities will become that much more meaningful. Colleges do want to get down to knowing the meaning behind every activity you did. That is why there is no right or wrong activity. There is no sacrosanct list. Whichever activity helped you persevere, collaborate, innovate, etc automatically becomes a good activity for you.

Stay with this thought, it is most empowering! It will certainly lead you to look at the process of applying to colleges in a very different light and would be a game-changer.