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When looking at colleges, study their extra-curriculars

[This is my Local Living section column for May 20, 2010.]

While writing a book about the most important factors in picking a college, I conducted an unscientific study of why several people at The Washington Post were more successful than I was. At almost every position on the chain of command above me were editors who had attended colleges ranked far below my Ivy-covered alma mater, yet they were making much more money and could fire me with no more than a quick e-mail to the personnel department.

I graduated with high honors from a famous school. How could this happen?

It occurred to me that the stuff we look for in a good college, such as a high ranking, selective admissions, a national reputation, top faculty and a lovely campus, might not have as much influence on our future success as one factor that is often overlooked: the quality of extracurricular activities at those campuses. U.S. News & World Report doesn’t include that in its ranking formula. There were few, if any, questions about it when I accompanied my children on campus tours.

When I compared my college with those attended by my superiors at The Post, I saw that nearly all had gone to universities that had daily student newspapers. Mine did too, but I read some of the papers where my upper-echelon colleagues had learned their trade. Those publications, often at big state schools, were just as good, and in some ways better, than my publication at my expensive private school.

It is hard to include a school’s extracurricular strengths in college search plans when the applicants are in high school and have no idea what their future profession might be. But nearly all of us have early inklings of what intrigues us, what out-of-classroom activities we might want to try. When I was a senior in high school, I thought I wanted to become a diplomat. But I also read a lot of newspapers and was interested in my father’s stories of his life as a young sportswriter.

When area high school juniors embark this summer on college hunts with their families, they should devote more thought to where their future passions might lie. I mean the real stuff, not the pseudo-passions they list in college essays to impress admissions officers. Some of the extracurricular activities that fill their days might also enrich their time in college, but all of them won’t. I won some elections in high school but was pretty sure I never again wanted to be involved in student politics.

Students who have explored this less-discussed facet of college life say it is best to look for campuses that offer wide-open opportunities in their area of interest. Some universities are famous for their athletic teams but have little for the high school second-stringer who just wants some friendly competition in a certain sport. Others, like the University of Texas at Austin, have opportunities for nearly everyone: 500 basketball teams, 400 flag football teams, 300 soccer teams and 200 volleyball teams. Ninety percent of UT’s 50,000 students participate in athletic competitions and exercise programs.

Getting the right information often requires more than just scanning a school’s Web site, although that is a good start. You can tell which schools might provide the most on-air opportunities for novice broadcasters, or lively dorm-based theater companies for wannabe directors, or entrepreneurial clubs for future start-up experts. But you should call or e-mail the organizations to make sure they are not closed cliques with unwelcoming attitudes.

One of those unheralded clubs, unmentioned in the college brochure, might change your life. Keep that in mind when the tour guide asks for questions, right after telling you how many U.S. presidents went to that school.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | May 19, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  campus extracurriculars can change your life, college rankings overlook extracurriculars, how to do an extracurricular analysis, why so many Post people are most successful than Mathews  
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Jay -- I can't help but wonder about your logic sometimes. I don't understand how you generalize from your experience being supervised by people graduating from less prestigious institutions to concluding that it has any relationship to the extra-curriculars offered at those "lesser" schools.

You didn't even establish a solid correlation before you launched into a causative narrative based on nothing other than a couple personal observations.

The field of education is already cluttered with hasty conclusions based on anecdotal information leading to broad policy changes. No wonder it seems that our schools have trouble understanding cause and effect, and how to evaluate information objectively.

Please try a little harder to base conclusions you share with your readers on a little firmer factual basis.

Posted by: EduCrazy | May 20, 2010 6:26 AM | Report abuse

For EduCrazy---I sympathize with yr sensible argument. I would like everything I say, and every statement made by every Post columnist, to be backed by randomized research. Unfortunately the field of educational research hasn't addressed this issue, or most other topics I cover. Hundreds of people over the years have told me that well-designed extra curricular activities in their colleges, unknown to them when they arrived, have made a big difference in their lives. I have gotten a lot of emails with similar stories when I raised this issue in the past. I try to follow the Golden Rule of reporting, in this case: If I were about to start a college search, would I find this column helpful? Sometimes I am wrong of course, and I am glad you shared your view that this doesn't hold water for you.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 20, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

As a college consultant, I have always felt that academics was just one part of what makes a college experience great. Many times the other opportunities that students have on a college campus are the real nuts and bolts of their education. Extracurricular activities give students a chance to discover their interests and passions and develop team building and leadership skills at the same time. These are the qualities that will matter when they go out into the world to do whatever great things they might.

Susie Watts
Denver, Colorado

Posted by: collegedirection | May 20, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

I think Jay makes a good point. I was a former Post staffer who went to an excellent college, the University of Michigan, but not an Ivy League one. Although I started off as a journalism major, as far as that subject was concerned, "everything I learned, I learned by working on The Michigan Daily," the campus newspaper, which was/is considered to be one of the best in the country. I think that particularly at large universities, the ability to find a small group that shares a passionate interest, is very important to a student's success and happiness.

Sara Fitzgerald
Falls Church, VA

Posted by: Justthefactsmam | May 21, 2010 7:30 AM | Report abuse

hmmm, everyone "over" Jay M. in the Wash Post food chain is his better, more successful?
I think not. The core work of writing, photographing and illustrating the news and other 'content' in the paper is much, much harder than the languid days of paper-pushers who don't face down that daily deadline (or more frequent deadlines, with web updates.)
And to run this hamster wheel year after year, week in and week out - man, that is what you call success. Jay gives himself short shrift. And overly imbues the suits with pixie dust. Puh-leeze.
Trying to sell seats @ a publisher's dinner? A botched FB link a few weeks back? Layoffs and buyouts that defy reason and appeared panicked and ill-advised?
These people are not ahead of you on any level, Jay, save salary. Big deal Principals make more than teachers. In general which of those do you prefer?
I thought so.
I rest my case.
Carry on.

Posted by: FloridaChick | May 22, 2010 12:01 AM | Report abuse

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