Should Your Teen Get a Job? College Admissions Counselors Weigh In

Just thinking about helping your kid get into college is enough to make you want to stroke your (imaginary) beard and yell, “In my day we didn’t need to speak four languages, study cello at Julliard and intern at a start-up! We just babysat and called it a day!” But before you preach about the obvious benefits of working part time (gas money, grit), consider what really matters to admissions officers. Here, some surprising expert advice.

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teenage girl working as a barista at a coffee shop
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Q) From the perspective of college admissions officers, is it a good thing for student-applicants to have worked after-school or summer jobs? 

A) Not necessarily. 

“Colleges seek involved students who stand for something. Why do they care about this? They want to understand what the student’s contribution on their campus might end up being. So, whether they are flipping burgers for minimum wage, washing cars in the neighborhood, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or studying an extra language on the side, they just want to know that the student is doing something meaningful, has a passion, or skill, of quality that will ooze onto their campuses should that student be admitted. [But bottom line,] grades are the most important factor in admission. No job trumps that.” —Lisa McLaughlin, National Product Manager for College and Graduate School Admissions, The Princeton Review

“Most college admissions officers do not put a lot of importance on high school jobs. An internship in the field that the student wishes to pursue can be helpful because it demonstrates further interest and knowledge about the subject. Otherwise, after-school or summer jobs are primarily key for extra money, not for college admissions.”—Rashi Jindani of college admissions counseling firm Synocate 

“In order to make a job experience stand out, a student must be able to articulate what he or she learned while working, how he or she was able to make an impact on a local community, or how that job relates to their current interests and future academic pursuits. The essay portion of college applications can be an excellent opportunity for a student to discuss the lessons he or she learned from working, which will stand out to admissions officers if done thoughtfully… Students should think of part-time jobs as a supplement to writing for the school paper or playing on the soccer team, not something they should take on instead of one of these activities.” —Dr. Katherine Cohen, founder of college admissions counseling firm IvyWise

teenage girl doing work at a coffee shop

Q) What types of jobs will help a student stand out?

A) Anything that inspires them to evolve as a person or help their community—that they can then write about in their application essays.  

“It’s not the type of job that matters necessarily. It’s more what students are doing with the wages they make, how much time is devoted to the employment and how that impacts studies and other extracurricular involvement. Stories gleaned from employment, in my experience, tend to make for some pretty colorful college essays. Holding down a steady after school job while juggling multiple responsibilities shows determination, consistency, etc. If a student is interested in an accelerated medical school program (BSMD), then a job shadowing a doctor all summer may be more useful than flipping burgers. For the most part, I don’t think colleges expect for students to intern over the summer. And often, it can be viewed as a sign of privilege (i.e., working in mommy’s law firm). The litmus test here for students is to find something you enjoy doing or a way to earn money and do it consistently for more than a month or two. Scoop ice cream all summer and then do it the following summer as well and hopefully earn yourself a management type position or raise.” –Lisa McLaughlin, The Princeton Review 

“If a student has the luxury of choosing a position based on personal interest, then he or she should seek out a job that relates to a field that they are passionate about. A part-time job that is relevant to a passion the student has will help show admissions officers that the candidate looks for opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. However, admissions officers understand that finding a position that relates to certain interests can be difficult, if not impossible, for high school students to secure. More traditional jobs such as working in retail or waiting tables still require maturity, humility, and organization, which are all desirable qualities for prospective students. A student who takes one of these positions and writes passionately about the important life lessons he or she learned by waiting tables and interacting with people from different walks of life will come off as a mature candidate with valuable real world experience.” –Dr. Katherine Cohen, IvyWise

teenage boy working in a boke repair shop
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Q) What are some of the more exceptional jobs you’ve seen students get?

A) Sit down, Mom. (But really, it runs the gamut.)

“A student of mine once wrote the most powerful essay about her job scrubbing toilets for her parents’ small family business. She discovered a great sense of pride in that hard work and wrote an essay about the value of this job. Another student wrote about a job at a car wash. He decided to make it fun and by doing so, the entire business was the most profitable it had been in months. He brought a sense of humor and fun to the work site that caused an overall positive change in morale.”—Lisa McLaughlin, The Princeton Review 

“One of my students was interested in law and the government so she got a job with the State Assemblywoman and the public defender for subsequent summers. When she worked for the public defender's office, she got to make PowerPoints for the lawyer and observe courtroom trials. These were unique jobs and directly tied to her future aspirations.” –Rashni Jindani, Synocate

“One out-of-the-box job that was particularly noteworthy came from a student who was employed by an oceanographic institute and had a deep passion for the natural world. This student worked alongside scientists in their efforts to conserve the bluefin tuna. She spent time working on a boat reeling in and tagging the 600-pound tunas, followed by organizing the research collected in order to protect the tuna's spawning regions. This helped her stand out amongst other college applicants because it demonstrated her passion and expertise for a specific field. Another high school student worked for an NGO and utilized her trilingual language skill set to help translate communications. The NGO was devoted to giving women around the world access to business opportunities, microloans, insurance and financial tools. This helped the high school student stand out when she applied as an international business major to universities.” —Dr. Katherine Cohen, IvyWise