Build Entrepreneurial Experience Before Applying to College

Even a failed business attempt demonstrates a student’s drive, creativity and leadership skills.

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Entrepreneurial experiences such as community outreach or business development can help high school students bolster their college applications.
Entrepreneurial experiences such as community outreach or business development can help high school students bolster their college applications.

Many of the most competitive colleges actively seek students who are leaders. After all, the best colleges are inundated with applications from bright, motivated students with excellent grades and test scores, so some other factor is needed to distinguish candidates.

The call for leadership goes along with the mission of many institutions of higher learning that seek not only to educate, but also to make the world a better place by positively affecting the next generation of leaders. Focusing on potential leaders allows an educational institution to spread the effect of their investment in the student out into the wider world.

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This effect is referred to as "leverage" – using a relatively small investment to produce an outsized result.

Entrepreneurial experiences are one of the most remarkable and beneficial ways high school students can stand out from their peers. Typical high-achieving high school students will demonstrate their leadership potential by seeking roles in student government, heading clubs or even through volunteering with community groups.

Entrepreneurship, though, takes a different sort of leadership. Starting a business is much riskier and requires substantially more courage and innovation than stepping into a ready-made role at an existing organization.

Even starting a business where you're the only employee shows evidence of leadership by example. That student has demonstrated that he or she sees a problem or inefficiency and has the imagination and wherewithal to attempt a solution, the exact characteristics that are desired by admissions departments of top-tier colleges.

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So what exactly counts as entrepreneurship, and how successful must a student be in a business?

The good news is that entrepreneurship doesn't need to include an actual business at all.

For example, a student could use programming skills to develop a website that simplifies community outreach for a nonprofit organization. Or he or she could design an online system that allows local stores and restaurants to notify the food bank when surplus food is available for pickup.

A lower-tech example might be a student who organizes peers to read to younger students in an after-school program for disadvantaged children. Successful projects often rely on existing resources that are used in new and original ways. This type of social entrepreneurship depends on innovation, organization and drive – the desire to take charge rather than just wait for results.

Many high school students started successful businesses by marketing to their peers or to society at large. And a handful have become wealthy because of their startup ventures.

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One high school student who grew tired of his phone battery running out invented a wind-powered battery charger that could be mounted on his bicycle's handlebars. It was a simple, elegant solution using off-the-shelf technology in novel ways. But innovation could be as simple as running bake sales with the option of bicycle delivery.

Keep in mind though that the majority of small business startups fail – if making money were easy, everyone would be doing it. But even if students do fail, the experience gained is still valuable and well worth the time invested.

Regardless of the venture you attempt, it is critically important to cultivate and maintain relationships throughout. Not only will these relationships form the basis of the next startup attempt, but you can call on them for letters of recommendation when applying to college. 

Every applicant will have recommendation letters from teachers or coaches, but very few will have testimonials to the drive and dedication required to start and run a business or social program. What matters from a college applications standpoint is that a prospective student showed initiative and had the courage to try something new.

Even an unprofitable attempt at running a business shows more willingness to take risks than the student who stayed on the well-trodden path of student government and club leadership.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.