Hong Kong high school students: If you want to stand out from the crowd, get a summer job

Kelly Yang says if students want to impress US university admissions officers, they should get some life experience, not another perfect score

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 July, 2015, 12:44pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 July, 2015, 12:47pm

As a college admissions adviser, I work with a lot of Hong Kong teenagers to help them navigate the minefield of getting into a good US university. Invariably, though, whenever I ask them what they've done in summer, their response is the same: they studied, for their SATs, ACTs, APs and/or IBs. These kids can reel off a list of exam acronyms that will make your head spin. When I hear this, I cringe and tell them straight: by joining the dime-a-dozen club of Asian kids who only study each summer, they've squandered a chance to stand out.

Instead of studying for endless tests, high school teenagers should be working during summer. And, when it comes to jobs, "prestigious" isn't better; what matters is the substance of the work. Is it meaningful? Is it challenging? Did you stick with it even though it was hard? I'd be far more impressed with a kid who sweats it out working at a frozen yogurt start-up in Mong Kok than someone who just fetched coffee and filed papers at daddy's bank. The former shows initiative and imagination, not to mention pushing oneself out of one's comfort zone. The latter shows you're a wannabe princeling.

The US university admissions officers I talk to agree. They say they'd love to see, on Hong Kong students' applications, not yet another perfect score, but something that really took courage, commitment and grit.

I learned valuable skills - how to deal with customers and respond to unexpected situations

Sadly, though, studying seems to be the only activity that takes courage, commitment and grit for too many students. And that's true all over the world. According to the Pew Research Centre, last year in the US, the teenage summer employment rate was 32 per cent, compared with 58 per cent in 1978. Instead of getting a job, more teens are signing up for "prestigious" summer courses at universities and boarding schools. These kids or their parents think these courses will somehow give them a leg up in university admissions. It won't.

As a kid, I had a job every summer. Mostly, it was pretty unglamorous work in a shop. Still, I learned valuable skills - how to deal with customers and respond to unexpected situations. I dealt with angry customers and learned to be flexible and compromise. These skills proved invaluable later in life, not just in work situations but also in school. They helped me become a more responsible and resourceful person, one who understands the value of a dollar. I could not have gained these skills any other way.

So whether you want to impress college admissions officers or you just want to best prepare yourself for life, the answer is the same: stop studying all summer and go and get a job.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk