The Mixed Message Conundrum: Can High School Students Be Too Involved?

The Mixed Message Conundrum: Can High School Students Be Too Involved?

By Pam Bernazani, Upper School Dean of Students and Guidance Counselor

As a guidance counselor, I encourage freshmen to get involved in school activities.  It can ease transition anxiety entering into high school, and help a student acclimate to their new surroundings more quickly.  We ask them to pick one thing (a sport, a club, an arts program) and see where it leads.  

Sorting Out Mixed Messages

However, when it comes to college applications, most students feel the more involved they are the better. When I counsel students through their college search efforts I’m often asked, “How many activities should I put on my college applications?”  “Which activities will impress an admissions committee the most?” “The more stuff I have on my resume, the better I will look, right?”

It is a mixed message that we send: should students choose one activity and stick with it throughout their four years of high school or should they diversify and fill their resumes with as many student activities as they can?  Colleges tell us that too many activities can look ‘forced,’ but not having meaningful extracurricular involvement can hurt an applicant’s chances of admission.  So what’s the right balance?

Finding the Right Balance

There IS such a thing as being too involved.  When a student’s resume has more activities than courses taken, it can cause a college admissions board to pause – they may wonder why this student is spreading themselves too thin.  It begs the question, what is this student’s true interest or passion?  A high school transcript reflects the student’s academics.  The activities resume speaks volumes about the student as a whole.  It is an important piece of the ‘holistic application’ as many schools now espouse.  When admissions counselors see lots of activities, but no long-term substance or development in an area, it can work against a candidate.

Students really need a balance.  No one will argue that the primary role as a student is their education.  How the student fills their remaining time outside the classroom is important, but that balance has to happen.  Ideally, students must show meaningful activity while also preserving personal time. Studies show that students who do not have enough time to spend with family and friends have a greater likelihood of reporting anxiety and depression.  In this case, all work and no play, makes ‘Jane’ more likely to experience mental health issues. 

Helping Our Students

How do we help?  Adults need to remember we are dealing with the teenage brain, which is not yet fully developed.  High school students may look like young adults, but the thought process, even in a young person with maturity, can be misguided at times.  Adults should encourage students to try different clubs or activities, and then focus on one or two that interest them.  Help channel a student’s focus by encouraging dedication to a few chosen activities, whether it be a sport or a club.  The student will then be able to participate fully, eventually gaining experience running meetings, leading activities within the club or sport, and being able to truly commit without worrying that something might fall through the cracks.  This focus can lead to an officer, captain, or other leadership role which makes a more compelling case for the college application. Being able report the impact that they’ve made through their experience is more valuable than simply listing their activities.

Employment can also enhance a resume. If used in place of a sport or activity, a part-time job can actually help bolster a candidate’s attractiveness on a college application.

Here at the Academy of Notre Dame, our high school students are all girls and they are cautioned about the pitfalls of taking on too many roles in life as women are apt to do especially as they get older. It is imperative that we teach and model for our young women the importance of involvements versus life balance, and take time for ourselves to recharge.  Getting involved is a great thing, but spreading ourselves too thin only ends in stress and exhaustion.