12/18/2014 08:45 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

Dreaming of the Ivy League? Hint: Ditch the Volunteerism


Let's be honest. Today's high-achieving high school students are insanely overscheduled.

Almost all of the juniors and seniors who come to me with high hopes of getting into an elite university are involved in too many activities.

They're getting five or six hours of sleep every night and rarely have time to sit down for dinner with their families.

And they're STRESSED.

Most of these students believe that this kind of on-the-go lifestyle packed with APs and a huge list of extracurriculars is a necessary evil. They tell themselves they just have to stay involved in all of their commitments until they get into their dream school.

I'm here to tell you that this does NOT work.

So many extraordinary students get waitlisted at their top choice schools. And the only reason is that they don't have anything extraordinary to set them apart from every other high achieving student. They're left wondering why they even worked so hard and stressed so much in the first place.

If a student doesn't light up like a firefly at least one of his activities, that's a sure sign that he's cramming in activities simply for resume status. And schools can see through that kind of uninspired involvement in a heartbeat.

Have your child drop these activities as soon as possible, even those related to volunteerism. Forcing students to do something they despise, no matter how virtuous it appears to others, teaches them that success requires misery.

So what's the answer?

The first and most important thing is to build in plenty of time for exploration for your child to discover and master a unique project. This unique project is THE key to acceptance at your child's top choice school. But it means not overscheduling. In fact, it means underscheduling.

Now, I know a lot of parents are going to worry about this suggestion. Understandably, you want your kids to demonstrate commitment and a well-rounded ability to handle a variety of responsibilities. You worry that if you let your kids have a lot of free time that they'll just waste it on Facebook or video games.

So here's the difference: unscheduled time outside of school still needs to be structured. You want to teach your child how to transform free time into a scientific laboratory. Building in time for exploration allows your child to try out a huge range of interests and projects until the right one clicks. And the right one will be a beautiful integration of your child's passion, vision, talent and service to others.

I'm going to be writing a lot more about this, but for now, start with this:

  • Have your child make a list of everything s/he loves to do.
  • Next, have your child go through this list and put a star next to everything that could be used to enhance others' lives.
  • Finally, check out to start getting some ideas about the kinds of projects that your child can start building.

This kind of active engagement will go much further than simply signing up for a bunch of school clubs or obligatory volunteerism. Instead, when students launch an activity that makes them light up, they radically increase their chances of getting into the school of their dreams.

Elizabeth Dankoski has been working with elite students as a private tutor and college consultant for 15 years. Her unconventional approach -- ditching perfection and uninspired volunteerism in favor of passion -- has helped her students gain acceptance to all of the nation's top schools: Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Columbia, and Yale, among many others.