The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

High school extracurriculars are nice. College extracurriculars are huge.

How my spare time pastime got me a job and the love of my life

STOCK PHOTO Young college students playing esports at computer stations. (iStock)
4 min

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.

Let’s make college admission fair, while celebrating unselective college products like my brilliant new boss

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 well-known person whose work you admire may bring good advice on colleges, since such people like being listened to by the young.

So you’re bummed because your favorite college said no. Read this.

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.