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How to Spin Your High School Job Into an Impressive Extracurricular

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Everything on your college application should contribute to your overall profile as an applicant. Your academic performance, test scores, essays, and recommendations will need to come together to create a cohesive, positive picture of a strong and focused college applicant with specific strengths and passions. Of course, your extracurriculars will play no small part, either.


Yet sometimes, a student doesn’t participate extensively in extracurricular activities or in any extracurriculars at all. If you don’t participate in extensive ECs because you are busy holding down a job, you might wonder how this will impact your chances of getting into a good college.


You may worry that your work might not be taken seriously if you do something like serve coffee or bus tables, but in reality, this type of employment is common among people your age. As the saying goes, you have to start somewhere, and it’s good to know that you are not alone. Census reports from the last decade reveal that about 25% of high school students are employed in some capacity.


Holding down a job along with all the other responsibilities that come with being a high school student is an impressive achievement in and of itself, but it is not necessarily one that will shine on its own on your college applications. Instead, you will need to spend some time considering how you will really highlight the relevance of your employment on your college application.


In this post, we will outline the most common reasons for getting a job in high school, how heavily your employment history is generally weighed by college admissions committees, and how you can frame your work experience in a way that allows it to truly shine on your college applications.


Why Would I Have a Job in High School?

For many students who hold down a job while still in high school, the decision is not a choice but a necessity. Some students need a job in order to save money for college. Others need to help support their family financially. In these situations, getting a job is something that you need to do in order to contribute to your family or prepare for your future.


In other circumstances, you might choose to get a job to earn spending money or save for something that’s important to you, like a computer or a car. Some students get a job over the summer to stay busy or even to spend more time with friends who are also employed. In these instances, a job might be a choice, but it’s still an important one.


Holding down a job can sometimes conflict with other extracurricular activities or impact the amount of time you have to spend on schoolwork or test prep. If you are in the position of choosing whether or not you will get a job, you should consider the time commitment carefully before biting off more than you can chew. If you need to hold a job, be sure to carefully manage the time you do have, so that you can complete your schoolwork and hopefully participate in an activity or two that you really enjoy.


How Heavily Weighted Is Work Experience on the College Application?

The amount of weight given to your work experience on your college application can vary quite widely depending on a few factors.


For one, different colleges will weigh your work experience differently depending on their priorities as an institution. While some colleges will consider this very important, others will give it little to no weight at all.


Another factor that will impact how your work experience impacts your application will be how you frame these experiences. If you simply list your title and the associated responsibilities, an admissions committee might assume that you gained little else from the experience and will be less likely to give it much weight in an admissions decision. If, however, you can pinpoint the ways in which the job has helped you to grow as a student or leader, you may find that it is looked upon more favorably by admissions committees. We’ll discuss how to do this later on.


A 2015 study from the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that the majority of colleges did not consider work experience to be considerably or moderately important when deciding to admit first-time freshman. This is not true of every college, though.


Synocote, a research firm that gathers information about how much colleges value certain characteristics, surveyed more than 40 colleges (including many Ivy Leagues) and compiled a comparative analysis of factors important to college admissions. In this report, work experience was ranked as either “Very Important” or “Important” by all but five schools.


If you are holding down a job in high school, you should review the list yourself to see if there are schools on it that may interest you. If there are schools on that list that you’re interested in attending, you might think about how they will weigh your work experience when you ultimately choose which schools you’ll apply to.


It’s also worth noting that as part of Harvard University’s recent Making Caring Common campaign, it was proposed that more weight should be put on a student’s work and contributions to community, emphasizing real-world experience, commitment, and service over superficial participation in extracurriculars that may not ultimately have any personal impact or importance. There isn’t yet any data to suggest that this advice has been enacted, but it’s hopeful news for those high school students who do hold down jobs.


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How to Present Your Job on a College Application

While the amount of weight that a college gives your work experience may vary from one university to the next, giving you little control over their particular admissions standards, one thing that you can control is how you present your job on your college application.


First off, no matter what your job entails, whether it’s washing dishes or conducting scientific research, you should always stress the real-world life skills that you have developed as a result of it. Mention how you’ve learned responsibility, taking direction from others, people skills, trustworthiness, and other life skills through your work. You might even touch on the important lesson of doing what you have to do in order to do what you want to do.


If there’s a particular reason why you have a job, also be sure to disclose this. Specifically refer to your need to contribute financially to your family or your need to save money for college, if these are indeed the case. These factors will reinforce the responsibility you took on along with your job.


You can also touch on how your job has given you insight into your future career. Even if your job was seemingly unrelated to what you want to do in the future, you can still use it to help you define what you do and do not like in a workplace. For example, if you spend time bussing tables but wish you were able to interact with customers more, you could discuss how your work helped you to realize that you should pursue a career that involves directly interacting with the public, like teaching or customer service.


Similarly, you might find connections between your high school job and potential career paths. If you collect laundry in a medical facility, you might get an inside look at how medical professionals work together to treat patients. If you have a job washing dishes at a small bakery, you will get a better idea of how a small business runs on a daily basis. Discussing this insight alongside specific examples will reinforce the relevance of your high school job towards your future profession.


Another way to reinforce your dedication and success in your job is to find ways to quantify your work. The simplest and most obvious way to do this is by keeping track of the time you spend on it. Being able to state how many hours you worked and how many months you spent in that position is a great way of showing in concrete terms the extent of your commitment.


Another way to quantify your work is to show increased responsibility or leadership in your role. If you start as a busboy at a busy restaurant and progress to a host and then server, you should include your increased responsibility on your application. Similarly, if you become a manager or are named employee of the month, these accomplishments deserve to be noted on your application, since they are clear evidence of your success.


Finally, emphasize the ways in which having a job has helped to shape other parts of your life. You have probably become a master of time management and learned to be dependable to different people in varying roles. If you hold down a job during the school year, you have learned to stay organized, make a schedule, and follow through on commitments. Be sure to discuss these details as well.


Where to Discuss Your Job On Your College Application

Some college applications will explicitly ask about work experience. If this is the case, you should definitely include details about your employment here. When you list the responsibilities required in your role, be sure to include hard skills, such as organization and responsibility, that can be easily translated to other environments.


If your application does not explicitly ask about work experience, you can include it under the activities section. Be sure to make it clear that this was steady employment and, as above, be sure to list tangible, transferable skills.


Another place to discuss your work experience in depth is in an essay. Sometimes work experience, no matter how menial the actual task, can significantly shape your high school years. It may expose you to a different social scene, teach you about dependability, or open your eyes to the importance of supporting your family and the role that finances often play in bigger life decisions. These can make really strong essay topics if they suit the prompt, as long as you feel that your work has significantly shaped who you are. The essay is a great place to discuss the impact of your job in depth and really drive home its importance in your life.


For many high school students, holding down a job while also juggling academics, activities, and a social life is a reality of their high school experience. This is no easy task, and successfully executing the balancing act is worthy of recognition. Sometimes, a college admissions committee may not realize the amount of time and energy you’ve expended over the years unless it is clearly communicated on your college application. You will need to make sure that your commitment and responsibility shine through, regardless of whether they are directly requested on your application.


Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


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For more information about jobs in high school, check out these CollegeVine posts:



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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.