Work Experience and College Applications

Learn How Your Job Can Help You Get Into College

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When you need to work after school and on weekends, it can be impossible to be involved in many extracurricular activities. Being part of a sports team, marching band, or theater cast simply won't be options for you. The reality for many students is that earning money to support their family or save for college is far more necessary than joining chess club or the swim team.

But how does holding a job affect your college applications?

After all, selective colleges with holistic admissions are looking for students who have meaningful extracurricular involvement. Thus, students who have to work would seem to be at a significant disadvantage in the college admissions process.

The good news is that colleges recognize the importance of having a job. Moreover, they value the personal growth that comes along with work experience. Learn more below.

Why Colleges Like Students With Work Experience

It can be tempting to wonder how someone who works 15 hours a week at the local department store can measure up to someone who stars on the varsity soccer team or took a leading role in the school's annual theater production. Colleges do, of course, want to enroll athletes, actors, and musicians. But they also want to enroll students who have been good employees. The admissions staff wants to admit a group of students with diverse interests and backgrounds, and work experience is one piece of that equation.

Even if your work isn't in any way academic or intellectually challenging, it has a lot of value. Here's why your job looks good on your college application:

  • High school students who successfully hold down a job for a significant period of time have proven that they can manage their time effectively. It's not easy to do well in school while devoting significant hours to work, and effective time management is one of the most important skills that will lead to college success.
  • Students who have jobs have learned to work as part of a team. You can't be selfish as an employee, for success depends upon working well with your colleagues. These collaborative skills translate directly to college success: you'll be well prepared to negotiate issues with your roommate, work on group projects, and recognize how your own actions impact others.
  • If you're working to save money for college, you'll be highly invested (literally) in your college education. The fact that your hard-earned dollars are going towards your education tells the admissions folks that you are fully committed to your education. College isn't a gift that has been handed to you; rather, it is something that you have worked hard to make happen. That kind of commitment has real value for the college in terms of retention rates, graduation rates, and overall student success.
  • Even a miserable job flipping burgers or washing dishes has value on your application. You've learned to be responsible, to serve others before yourself, and to make sacrifices to meet your long-term goals. Work experience and maturity tend to go hand-in-hand.
  • Finally, you have a perspective that many college applicants lack. You have experienced first-hand the type of work that millions of people do without a college degree. So unless you were lucky enough to get an intellectually challenging job as a high school student, you'll have additional motivation to succeed in college and move on to work that is more personally satisfying.

    Are Some Jobs Better than Others for College Admissions?

    Any job — including those at Burger King and the local grocery store — are a plus on your college application. As outlined above, your work experience says a lot about your discipline and potential for college success.

    That said, some work experiences come with additional benefits. Consider the following:

    • Jobs that provide leadership experience. Colleges want to enroll future leaders, and your job can help show your potential on this front. It often isn't possible for a part-time 18-year-old to be a manager, but some jobs such as being a lifeguard, camp counselor, or academic tutor are leadership positions by definition. In other types of jobs, you might be able to ask your supervisor for leadership opportunities. For example, you might be able to help train new employees or help the company with outreach in the community.
    • Jobs that show your entrepreneurial ability. It's also impressive if you're entrepreneurial and started your own small business whether making jewelry or mowing lawns. Entrepreneurs tend to be creative and self-motivated, qualities that make for excellent college students.
    • Jobs that provide field-specific experience. If you have a strong sense of what you want to study — whether it be medicine, business, chemistry, art, English, or any other major — work experience in that field will play well with the admissions folks. As an example, a lot of students want to go into medicine because of the attractive salary, not because of any love of the sciences or the profession. An applicant who has actually worked in a hospital and gained first-hand experience will be a much more informed and compelling applicant. Similarly, a future computer science major who has worked in tech support will be able to craft a well-informed and convincing application.
    • Internships. As a high school student with a thin resumé and no relevant work experience, you may find it impossible to get a job in your area of study. An internship, however, may be a an option. Many internships are unpaid, but they are nevertheless valuable. Those hours you spend working at a publishing house, law firm, or chemistry lab can open doors to future opportunities, and they give you first-hand knowledge of an academic field (something that most college applicants won't have). If unpaid work isn't an option for you, try a compromise: 10 hours a week in a paid job and 5 hours a week as an intern.

      Is It Okay to Have No Extracurricular Activities?

      If you're filling out the Common Application, the good news is that "work (paid)" and "internship" are both categories listed under "activities." Thus, working a job means your extracurricular activity section on the application won't be blank. For other schools, however, you may find that extracurricular activities and work experiences are entirely separate sections of the application.

      The reality is that even if you have a job, you probably also have extracurricular activities. If you think about the wide range of activities that count as "extracurricular," you'll probably discover that you have several items you can list in that section of the application.

      It's also important to realize that your inability to participate in after-school activities doesn't preclude you from extracurricular involvement. Many activities — band, student government, National Honor Society — take place largely during the school day. Others, such as involvement at church or summer volunteer work, can often be scheduled around work commitments.

      A Final Word About Work and College Applications

      Holding a job doesn't have to weaken your college application. In fact, you can leverage your work experience to strengthen your application. Experiences at work can provide excellent material for your college application essay, and if you've maintained a strong academic record, colleges will be impressed by the discipline required to balance work and school. You should still try to have other extracurricular activities, but there is nothing wrong with using your job to demonstrate that you are a well-rounded, mature, and responsible applicant.