The pressure to stand out: How high school expectations threaten the true purpose of altruism

Arsh Aggarwal ’24

High school is a time for self-discovery, where students learn about themselves and build healthy habits and relationships. For some, it may also be a time when they discover their passions and find so much interest in a particular topic they decide to devote their career to it. 

But, in recent years, this period of exploration has taken on unwelcomed pressure: the pressure to stand out. With colleges looking for rounded students with unique talents, skills, and experiences, students are feeling the need to go above and beyond to cater to the eyes of admissions officers. As students attending one of the top twenty boys-schools in the country, this pressure is further amplified by the need to keep up a reputation. 

So how do students distinguish themselves in such a competitive environment?

Some students resort to overcommitting to various school activities, whether that be taking on several sports or simply joining and leading several clubs. This solution often results in the inability to manage a large workload, creating a stressful environment.

Another way for students to stand out is to start a venture, either entrepreneurial or, more commonly, charitable in nature. While starting any venture from scratch comes with large risks, starting in high school minimizes them.

College admissions is not a zero-sum game.

The majority of students in our community who would want to start a business have access to the resources required to do so, and when the scale is so small, there isn’t enough downside to make someone shy away from just trying. If a business in high school fails, it’s only you and potentially a circle of friends and family that take any psychological or monetary loss.

However, when a student decides to start a charity/nonprofit, their playing field is much different. A few considerations go into starting a nonprofit in high school. First is the thought that starting a nonprofit organization will look good on college applications. Blinded by this, what many students fail to realize is how hard starting a nonprofit is.

“For the first six months, it was quite difficult to get started. I spent my entire spring break making the website, reaching out to other businesses regarding the Food4Philly business model which runs off surplus food donations, while dealing with internal conflicts within my team,” Sixth Former and Food4Philly CEO Ethan Chan said. “At this point, [Food4Philly is] growing exponentially, but it wasn’t always like this, so it is important for people to recognize that you have to be 110% committed for the long haul and be willing to put yourself out there and challenge yourself.”

In the real world, nonprofits are businesses with CEO-type people with their Masters in Business Administration running them. Even with these extremely qualified professionals running them, nonprofits fail all the time. Even in the college sphere, nonprofits can end up short of their goals, sometimes failing completely. Realistically, if people with real-world business skills struggle to make successful nonprofits, a high school student doesn’t stand much of a chance. 

“Anyone can technically form a nonprofit, but not everyone can truly make a difference,” Chan said. “It really comes to how much you care. While I don’t like to assume, recently, I’ve seen an increase in nonprofit organizations being created, with no mission statement and maybe one project, before being disbanded altogether.”

College admissions is not a zero-sum game. It would work if you were the only student on the planet to include a nonprofit with your application; the boldness of such an undertaking alone would be sufficient. However, this “method” started to become popular over a decade ago, and now countless numbers of kids engage with it.

Following the crowd will not make an application stand out. It makes the application similar to other ten-thousand teens taking part in the same game. And, unless you’re that shoe salesman who has donated fifteen-hundred pairs of shoes to underprivileged communities and made $500,000 in sales, your nonprofit won’t necessarily stand out.

Ethan Chan ’23 buying nonperishable food at Costco as a part of the Food4Philly non-profit – Kadin Salaria, Creative Director at Food4Philly

But, thinking every student who starts a nonprofit is doing it just for their applications is unfair. Many students genuinely care about a problem in the community and want to help people. Helping people is great. But, the best way to help people is by volunteering, not by trying to run a business. The time spent managing, planning, and carrying out a full-fledged nonprofit organization could be more productively spent devoting hours at a local food pantry to help the food insecure. 

Although the intention may be there when starting a nonprofit, they largely end up failing or not doing as much as planned. Countless hours go into running an organization, so when it fails that time is lost when it could have been used to volunteer at an established charity and help a quantifiable amount of people. When someone creates a nonprofit, they make a commitment to serve the underprivileged. When they fail, they not only fail themselves but all those whom they had promised to help. 

[The pressure to stand out in high school] can lead students to engage in activities that are not truly representative of their interests and values. 

There are ways to stand out while volunteering. Making an impact within a larger, pre-established organization is arguably as impressive as starting a successful nonprofit in high school. 

Hypothetically, if you start volunteering or working for a charity organization as an athlete of any kind, and find a way to leverage your athletic network to raise funds, food, or resources, you show initiative and a genuine interest in what you do. Additionally, this connection between two seemingly different parts of yourself shows synergy in your application and how you have the ability to use your passions to do good. 

The pressure to stand out in high school drives students to explore new ways to make their impact on the world. On the other hand, it can lead students to engage in activities that are not truly representative of their interests and values. 

Instead of trying to impress admissions officers, students should focus on ways to serve their communities and make a genuine impact. 

Charity isn’t a stepping stone into college; it’s a way to help others and make a difference in the world. 

Author: Arsh Aggarwal '24

Arsh Aggarwal is currently the Sr. Managing Editor of The Index. His previous roles were Editor of Features and Campus Opinions. In 2023, Arsh was awarded the First Place prize in the Pennsylvania Press Club Annual High School Journalism Contest for his piece titled "SAT going digital in 2024",