Back when I was applying to colleges, good grades and a solid test score could pave the way to about any college destination I desired. Then again, I filled out my applications by hand. Both realities have vanished in the 30-plus years since I graduated from high school, but one truth remains: students still want to gain admission to prestigious college programs. 

How you manage to get into those programs and what you will pay for your degree have changed dramatically in the last three decades. Most students no longer have the luxury of taking five or even six years to find themselves in college, as the average cost of state education is creeping towards $30,000 a year. With that approach, students can get into those selective colleges to begin. 

The harsh truth today is that the admissions rates are falling each year for the most selective schools, while the cost of attending those same schools is skyrocketing. That is not the case for every school. But if you want to build the most competitive student profile and significantly decrease the odds that your degree will extend beyond four years, regardless of your college destination. You must extend the scope of your education beyond the classroom. 

Job shadowing, internships, community service projects, and general employment opportunities will allow you to gain invaluable experience in multiple fields. But, also separate yourself from other students who neglect these things. With more and more schools adopting test-optional approaches to admissions, it is becoming harder for those schools to distinguish between their applicants. 

The responsibility is on students now to find ways to distinguish themselves. Stacked on top of all the other activities you already have, this may seem like a Herculean task, but the key is to find a way to work smarter, not harder. Here are three ways you can distinguish yourself:


Job shadowing

It may sound daunting, but it does not have to be painful. It can even be quite exhilarating. Dipping your toe in various professions can help you eliminate or validate different occupations- both of which can be immensely helpful. These short outings (typically one to two days at most) can give you insight into the normal day-to-day tasks involved with certain jobs. 

This peeks behind the curtain could prevent a wasted semester or pursuing the wrong major. On a more positive note, job shadowing can also help point you in the right direction when it comes to the classes you decide to take in high school and the colleges you should apply to after high school. 


The logical extension of job shadowing in many cases is an internship. Once you have tried different hats, it could significantly benefit you to spend a long time wearing the one that suits you best. These more in-depth professional experiences can help you show colleges that you are investing time and effort to prepare yourself for your intended major. 

It will help separate you from other applicants and prevent the possibility of major hopping once you make it to college. Parents, youth directors, coaches, and teachers can be tremendous resources when it comes to identifying potential internship opportunities. 

Community Service

Finding a way to combine your passion with purpose can be a particularly effective way to show colleges that you are both thoughtful in planning out how you approach community service and generous in your follow-through with that plan. For example, my son knew he wanted to go into the medical field after college, so he focused his service hours on volunteering at the Red Cross. 

Believe me when I tell you that admission officers pay attention to details like this. Please do not misunderstand me. Giving your time in any way is worthwhile and contributes to your community. But there is nothing wrong with finding ways to work smarter and not harder, even when it involves community service. 

Finally, colleges like to see students stick with projects over an extended period when it comes to volunteering. In many cases, this will allow you to take on more extensive leadership roles in those activities, which will also help build your resume. 


There are other ways to distinguish yourself outside of the classroom that are not touched on above, but the general sentiment remains the same regardless of the activity you choose to pursue. Invest your time thoughtfully in areas that help you grow personally and professionally. Consider how you spend your valuable time carefully, and colleges will take the time to consider your application. While the result may not be a positive decision every time, I can guarantee you will be better off for the effort.