Are Expensive Extracurriculars and Fancy Schools Essential for Success

Sarah Li Cain

As someone who didn’t attend a fancy college or have parents who pressured me to sign up for a bunch of extracurricular activities, I think I did all right.

Despite quitting drawing club in grade school and never qualifying for a sports team (volleyball was a disaster), I graduated with honors in college, and now navigate a successful career around the world earning a high salary as a self-employed writer.

This isn’t me bragging. It’s showing that it’s possible to succeed without the hefty price tag of an Ivy League school, or without finding the perfect mix of extracurriculars to stand out from the crowd.

Increasingly, it seems like parents believe their kid has to have the best—and be the best—to truly succeed. While some of the nation’s wealthiest families were just busted for scheming to falsify test scores or bribe coaches to gain automatic admission to prestigious colleges and universities, it isn’t just a problem at the top. Even average parents are pushing kids into AP class loads, sports teams, and endless extracurriculars, filling up their child’s schedule (and their own) in the hopes that they won’t have to “settle” for a state school.

But is it all really a guarantee of success?  

Do “fancy” schools give you a leg up?

In some ways, attending a top-tier university, particularly an Ivy League one, can give students a small advantage—at least when it comes to networking after you graduate.

Vicki Cook, a former career coach and school administrator in New York, suggests that Ivy League colleges may be able to give you access to large and powerful alumni networks. In her experience, it was mostly the parents who held this belief and passed it onto their children.

“Kids think they need to go to [Ivy League colleges] to get the highest paying jobs and the most opportunities,” she says. “The parents I know who’ve gone to Ivy Leagues and other private schools mostly believed they got a better education than their peers at “lesser” schools.”

But that long-held belief might not hold out in practice. In 2017, Forbes conducted a study on the nation’s “leaders” (including CEOs, government officials, and other high-ranking position holders) to see what degrees they held. Overall, 16 percent of the 2,300 leaders studied had a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League or comparable university like Sandford or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among CEOs, that number dropped to 13 percent, while state legislature leaders only made up 1 percent. So, while graduates from top-tier schools do have a foothold in high-ranking position, the majority of those positions are not filled by Ivy League grads.

There’s also no guarantee students at Ivy League institutions will take advantage of networking resources in order to give themselves the professional boost they need. And then there’s also the field they want to get into—-not all hiring managers care where you went to school as long as you have the necessary certifications.

When Cook hired teachers in her former administrative position, she never looked at where someone went to school as long as the candidate was certified by the state.

“Whether they are certified and went to a ‘fancy’ expensive college or to a community college and state university combination, it didn’t matter,” she says. “We would look at grades in some key courses on occasion, but not often.”

What you can’t learn in schools

Increasingly, employers are looking for something that can’t be guaranteed from a prestigious school: soft skills—and many say they’re struggling to find it among even the most qualified candidates.

While ‘hard skills’ like being a whiz at Excel and knowing basic HTML are what employers look for in a candidate on paper, soft skills—say, having a high level of emotional intelligence or the ability to negotiate—are often what employers look for in the job interview process. A 2018 Bloomberg Next and Workday study asked 200 senior level individuals in both business and academia what they’re seeing in new hires. Nearly four in 10 corporation respondents and almost 50 percent of academia respondents said new hires lack some pretty big soft skills—everything ranging from the ability to work within a team to complex reasoning.

Maybe kids need to learn how to work with others instead of just networking with them.

In my early days as a budding writer, I understood the craft (I graduated with an English degree) but had no clue how to put my work out there. Sure, a business degree may have come in handy if I needed to learn organizational theory, but it wouldn’t have helped as I got rejection letter after rejection letter for my articles. To push past that and on to success, I needed those soft skills.

The pressure to strive for more, creates more anxious kids

My parents disagreed when it came to signing me up for extracurricular activities. My mom—the frugal one in the relationship—was willing to take me to classes but only if I committed to attending them. (She was glad she never purchased a piano for me when I quit shortly after my second lesson.)

My father, on the other hand, wanted me to have the best of everything. For example, he jumped at the opportunity for me to go to a bilingual school so I could learn French, believing that opportunity would give me a leg up professionally.

I’ve never needed my French speaking skills to this day. But I was lucky. My parents never pushed too much on me, I got to be a kid, and didn’t feel real adult-level stress until I was a real adult. In today’s more, more, more world, that’s not always the case.

“More activities supposedly look better for school awards, scholarships, and for college applications,” Cook says. “Sure, the kids get to try out new things, but they can get stressed out and lack down time.”

And that’s a problem, since anxiety among children is on the rise.  According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, almost 32 percent of teens in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder. Another study conducted by the American Psychological Association shows that levels of anxiety increase when parents are being intrusive on their children’s autonomy—barely leaving their children alone.

What’s more, this pressure to get children involved in a myriad of activities can bleed into other areas of families’ lives. Children often miss the free time of childhood, the point in our lives where we develop our creativity and sharpen those soft skills. They might also lack the time needed to deepen relationships with friends and family. Parents may find they’re stressed about spending the money needed for cello lessons, theater troupes, and summer soccer teams. Or just worn out from chauffeuring kids to lessons, bringing snacks for the team, and getting up early on the weekend for soccer games.

What’s the solution?

At the end of the day, worrying about having the perfect ratio of academic involvement to extracurricular activities might not benefit anyone. Instead, work on cultivating a safe environment for children, giving them plenty of opportunities to cultivate empathy, engage in problem-solving activities, communicate well with others, and learn to take initiative.

“Children need to get different types experiences and have adults model positive behaviors,” says Cook.

For kids that do want to be involved in extracurriculars, the key may be in finding the right balance.

“One of my most successful students was involved in a number of extracurriculars, but limits were set at home as to how many she could be involved in at a time,” Cook says. “The family believed in active involvement, but she also had time for herself, her friends, and her family.”

And when it comes to those college applications, maybe parents are better off taking a deep breath, smiling, and remembering that any future their child chooses is going to be a great one—because they set their kid up for success. And even if it isn’t an Ivy, that’s OK because building grit and perseverance is the cornerstone to success.