It’s an old joke that in order to get into college these days, high schoolers should have their own Fortune 500 company, a Nobel Peace prize, perfect grades and SAT scores, and a recommendation from someone named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year. While this is facetious (TIME’s Person of the Year 2006 was “You” so anyone could claim a recommendation from them) it gets at a serious and valid worry among high schoolers: As competition gets more and more intense, how do you set yourself apart? How do you demonstrate your passions and skills to colleges? One way to do that is by starting your own non-profit.
First, a caveat: If you’re doing something exclusively to appeal to the admissions committee at the college of your choice, they will be able to smell that from a mile away and react accordingly. For that reason, we would strongly caution against making some kind of cardboard charity that shakes out to little more than a photo op for you to claim on your Common App activities list.
That doesn’t mean non-profits aren’t fantastic additions to a college application. If you have been able to found and run an organization that does some good in the world, that speaks volumes about your character and follow-through. So how do you ensure you’re going about it the right way?
The first step to building a non-profit is thinking about your passions and following them into something that could do good in the world. There’s no “right” kind of non-profit—whether you’re interested in distance running or video games or molecular biology or collecting Beanie Babies, you can use those passions to kickstart an idea for an organization that will provide some type of social good.
Also important to consider at this stage is the scale of your project—what you’ll actually be able to achieve given the time and resources you have at your disposal. Part of this will come in the form of a ‘Mission Statement,’ a statement that outlines what you’re looking to accomplish and why. Take the mission statement for Brad Pitt’s charity devoted to building homes post-Katrina, which said it would build 150 environmentally sustainable homes in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. Simple, achievable, and direct. (Unfortunately, however, the follow-through has been criticized recently, showing the importance of actually doing what you say you’re going to do, and thinking in the long term.)
Once you have your mission statement, it’s time for an action plan. How are you going to start your non-profit? Do you need a location? What kind of fundraising will be necessary? What are your organizational needs to keep the non-profit up and running? Will it require a website? A graphic designer? All these questions are important ones to ask yourself. Putting together concrete lists of action items is preferable. For instance, “This week I will look up venues for my fundraiser and contact 20 local businesses” is achievable, while “This week I will set up my fundraiser” is less so.
Sooner or later, you’re going to need to bring others on board. It could be your friends who share your interests looking to get involved, or it could be corporate sponsors willing to pledge money or organizational support. If you’re looking to scale—that is, grow the non-profit and increase the reach and impact—money and manpower will be necessary. As with all group endeavors, make sure you’re respectful of others’ time and desires, as well as hard-working and kind.
So let’s say you’ve done all this. Your non-profit, Beanie Babies For Middle Schoolers, has reached thousands of kids all over your state. You have fundraisers, you have corporate sponsors (Beanie Babies, Inc. was very interested), and you’re opening a chapter across the country next month. How do you show that to colleges? For one thing, you’re going to want to have a record to point to. A website is good for that. Hard evidence that you’ve made a difference—pictures, statistics, and events—is ideal.
If you do it right, starting a non-profit will do the double duty of: A) doing something good in the world, and B) helping colleges see that your nomination as TIME Person of the Year in 2016 wasn’t just a fluke—you’re a passionate and capable student who would be a great addition to their student body.