What really matters at the end of senior year? A top student inventories his activities list

Photo of Eric by Anne Scearce

Student council. Check. 

Varsity soccer. Check. 

National Honors Society. Check.

Link crew. Honor guard. Church Finance Elder. Check. Check. Huh? 

It’s true. Eric, a hard-working, high-achieving, heavily committed senior, served as All Student Body Vice President, earned 2nd team all-metro as a soccer player, and helped his church strategize their budget as part of their finance committee.  

It goes without saying that Eric had a very busy high school career, and with multiple acceptances at impressive institutions like Santa Clara University, Pepperdine, University of San Diego, and Loyola Marymount, he offers some surprising advice to future graduates. 

“If I were to do it again I probably would have focused on one or two activities and spent more time just reading,” he says, “colleges want to see your passions. If you can effectively express these in the essay, that is equally if not more valuable than a top test score.” And if you were to read his common application essay, it appears Eric-the-rising senior anticipated Eric-the-graduating senior’s advice. 

With a lifetime fascination with money, business, and investment, Eric seized the admissions essay to revisit a childhood season where he devoted himself to his Penny Pinecone Corporation.

His essay opens, “When I was five years old, I knew how to make money grow on trees.” Eric’s business plan was simple: Convince the neighbors the acidic pine cones were killing their lawn, then offer to collect the evergreens’ unwanted offspring for one penny each.

Eric’s topic would simply be a cute story if it hadn’t taught him (and the neighbor kids) real lessons about finance and life. 

  1. Haters can become admirers: Everyone will laugh at you until they see you cruising down the street in your new red bike, purchased from your earnings. 
  2. Copy Cats come with the territory: Greta’s Gardening and Liam’s Lawncare wasted no time in competing for the landscaping jobs in the neighborhood. 
  3. Fads work both ways: Businesses end when five year olds gain years but lose time, when soccer and playdates compete for attention. 

*Pro tip: It hurts less if your parents have a garage to store your gloves and wagon.

When it came down to making his college selection, Eric put his recaptured wisdom to work. As he compared university annual scholarships ranging from 6,000 to 18,000 to 23,000, he not only totaled dollars but measured how each school addressed his passions. 

Next year, Eric plans to attend Santa Clara because, as Eric explains, the university features a the Leavey School of Business, with a strong finance program, and has business relationships in the Silicon Valley, which all help him land an internship. Eric also values that SCU Jesuit school, a place where Eric knows he’ll receive a holistic education.

Driven students like Eric often are misunderstood as overly fixated on achievement. But for Eric, he’s really been aiming for something quite different.

When he thinks back on writing his admission essay, he notes the process pushed him to find his inspiration, something Eric says is tough to capture in a classroom.

Not only that but his essay came with a bonus: an excuse to reconnect with a few old buddies. “I ended up talking to my neighborhood friends about the Penny Pinecone Corporation,” says Eric, “And we all had a good laugh.”

Victoria Payne is a writing coach, story consultant, copywriter, and founder of Boxcar Writing Labs. She writes about the heroic little choices individuals and businesses make every day that make the world a better place. A former English professor, Victoria believes stories are the common language we speak to each other. 

Instagram Already Knows Your Topic

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what if I told you that you could get it down to 650—the required length of the common application essay?

College-bound seniors are…wait for it…teenagers. Whether you (if you are a student reading this blog) or your teen (if you’re a parent) like to chat away or stow away alone, teens talking about themselves in order to make an impression is rarely a forte. And let’s be honest, there are very few of us who are good at it at all. I suppose it’s not exclusively a teenage problem but more of a human dilemma.

How do we show the best of who we are without wreaking of self-absorption? How do we get attention without sounding like a sycophant? And, how can the thoughtful and quiet among us open up and join the spotlight, when small talk already feels like swimming against the current? 

Today, I want to give you or your teen a topic hack. In this blessed time of photographing everything from friends to food (not to mention ourselves), there’s a really good chance that a standout topic exists inside your phone. Go ahead, give it a scroll and see what you find. Here are three ways college-bound seniors can know they’ve discovered a strong topic in a photograph:

  1. The shot captures an emotional experience. It’s not just the visual; it’s the feeling of that moment. The best photo-topics will inspire a story about you. 
  2. When you look at the collection of pictures, there’s a trend. You like to photograph the same types of things. From food to children to landscapes, there’s something about this subject that intrigues you. Can you choose one and explore its significance? 
  3. The photograph is of a person who’s affected your life. One way you can overcome the awkwardness of talking about yourself is to—initially—talk about someone else. When you look at this photo, can you think of 3 lessons this person has taught you? In fact, are they lessons you could teach someone else? If so, you might be writing your essay simply through this exploration. 

While the skeptics question our obsession with filters and photography in the 21st century, it’s possible that we’ve all discovered an outlet where we can express ourselves without needing to write a novel or create a painting. Just think, hundreds and hundreds of your own stories and masterpieces (great topics!) waiting to be explored in your photo gallery. What are you waiting for?

Happy Writing!

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