Is “Looking Good” Really All That Matters?

The Common App

How many things do students do just to look good on this piece of paper? (Photo credit: mWei2010)

I recently read a post by a young blogger considering the pros and cons of attending a well-known university simply for the sake of the school’s prestigious name.  Did the name of the university matter that much when it came to future employment?  For the sake of discussion, let’s take the question a little bit wider.  Do appearances on paper matter more than who you are as an individual?  Should you do things in high school just for the sake of writing them down on your college applications?  Is “looking good” really all that matters when it comes to universities and future employment?

Of course there’s prestige associated with certain schools.  Attending an Ivy League sounds impressive at any time of life.  However, as I commented in the young blogger’s post, I went to a tiny university no one’s ever heard of, and I don’t believe it’s had a negative impact on my career.  Employers want to know I’m properly qualified, but they don’t really care about the name of my school.  Instead, they want to form an idea of what will happen if they put me in their classrooms.  They want to know if I’m good at what I do.

So where do these misconceptions begin?  Why are students in our education system so fixated on school names, program titles, and awards?  Where does the obsession with “looking good” come from?

It’s the natural result of the very structure of the education system itself.  We’re driven by the papers and profiles that supposedly represent the person.  But we all know that’s not always true.  Students are often encouraged to improve their image on paper without actually trying to improve themselves!  We see it (and even say it) all the time.  You should participate in that activity – it’ll look good on your college application.  You should take that internship – it’ll look good on your résumé.  Take the honors and AP classes – they’ll look good.  I’m guilty of saying things like that myself, though I stopped after I taught my first college admissions course.

Northeastern University: Ell Hall (on Huntingt...

Teaching College Discovery courses here was the best summer job ever. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s funny – it took teaching teens how to look good on college applications to make me stop encouraging them to do things just for the sake of “looking good.”  Instead, I began encouraging students to be the kind of individuals the colleges and universities would want to have fill their halls and dorms.  That meant valuing dedication to a particular interest more than showing off a long list of short-lived activities.  That meant demonstrating progression and growth, not just random titles.  That meant giving students the freedom to really follow their passions, rather than spreading themselves thin trying to do everything that people tell them they should do for the sake of “looking good.”  I tried to teach my students that universities are more interested in filling their student bodies with impressive people than filling their file folders with stacked applications.

It makes sense that young people think this way, though.  It also makes sense that they project the “looking good” mindset into life after academics.  As much as we teachers may wish to think differently, from a student’s perspective school isn’t about learning skills or building a knowledge base.  It’s about grades.  How can I improve my GPA?  What percentage of questions do I need to answer right on that test?  How do I compare to others in my grade?  It’s about AP and Honors programs, class rankings, and getting the A, not about developing into a better individual.  I can see why they would think that universities and even the professional world would act according to appearances on paper, too.

I’m not saying the paper doesn’t matter, but as students build themselves into better individuals, the paper will reflect that.  I’m also aware that there may be small pockets of the professional world that care about the school’s name on the diploma.  I know that even as adults we all do things sometimes simply for the sake of building a résumé.  However, my experience has been that those are small factors, not the over-riding focus of our careers.

Theater taught me to be scary. That’s important for a teacher, right? 😉

Instead, my life experiences are valuable because of how they’ve helped me grow, learn, and improve, not because of how they make me look.  I’m glad I did theater, not because of how it looked on my college application, but because I learned valuable lessons and skills that I actually use in my teaching career.  I’m glad I studied hard and learned well in my college English classes, not so that I can tell people I earned 3.92 GPA, but so that I can confidently teach literature, writing, and grammar to some ingenious teens.  I’ve won awards and joined honor societies, but the most impressive thing on my résumé is simply the fact that I built an English program where one hadn’t existed before.  That wasn’t about looking good; that was about doing my job well.

So how can we break this “looking good” mindset in teenagers and help them focus on simply being good?  How can we show them that school is about learning skills, flexing mental muscles, and collating information, instead of a collection of numbers and letters on a report card?  That employers won’t care how impressive their résumé is if they can’t do the things bosses need them to do?  How can we help them see that who they are as people is so much more important than how they look on a piece of paper?

*Note: This post was written in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge.

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15 thoughts on “Is “Looking Good” Really All That Matters?

  1. Unfortunately, I think our system of education and common hiring practices encourage this type of attitude in many ways. Resumes are sifted by computers; if certain “key words” are not present, a candidate will not be considered. I was told multiple times in my schooling from grade school through college that it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the subject or that I was not actually improving or learning because I was earning good grades. To earn scholarships, certain categories have to be checked off the list. HR professionals have too many candidates so they toss resumes in the garbage for not following their arbitrary, preferred format. (I was told this point blank by several people who worked in HR for a major company.) To put it bluntly, no has time to look to look at real individual people so they often take what looks good on paper.

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    • I can see that to a certain extent, to at least get your resume considered. I realize the paper profile is still really important because it’s the first thing colleges and employers see. Teaching college admissions did open my eyes as to what actually looks good on an application, though. Several years dedicated to a few activities, demonstrating growth and leadership within those activities, looks better than the long, random lists students try to cram into the applications.

      I’d be surprised if employers went so far as to say “you should attend this particular university if you want to get a job here,” though your experience was different from mine, so it may be that some are that picky. However, once the resume makes it past screening and the candidates are called in to interview, there needs to be some level of competency on the individual’s part! An education system solely focused on building a good profile doesn’t teach this at all. In the one job where I was in charge of hiring, I interviewed people who looked good on paper, but in my office they were a mess! I didn’t hire most of them. I had to hire a few (because of who they were related to), but those individuals were my biggest problems all summer. When they applied to other jobs later and I was contacted for a reference, I let the employers know just how incompetent those individuals were. At some point people need to realize that a good application or resume is a good start, but it’s not enough. Our education system isn’t teaching that well.

      And your comment about getting the message that learning doesn’t matter if you’re getting good grades makes me chuckle, because I pretty much said the same thing in a blog post I’m drafting right now. I don’t have a good answer, but our education system needs a big pedagogical shift.

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  2. Pingback: “Pay no attention to the woman behind the children…” | 3rdculturechildren

  3. Another great post. Professors always told me that our school, and my program, had a good reputation and that employers will look for that. School has made me believe that if I don’t have a lot of things on my resume or if there is a gap between employment/volunteering, that I won’t be considered as a top candidate for a job. It’s gotten to the point where it seems like quantity on a resume is more important than the quality of the person, which I think is wrong. I understand that certain things on a resume look good, but I know some people who volunteer or “get involved” just for the sake of putting it on a resume, rather than because they enjoy it or want to gain experience. Meanwhile, these people with the wrong intentions, are considered top candidates because of how much it looks like they’ve done.

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    • It’s a fine line, though! I have a resume that has a lot of “quantity”, and for a while it worked in my favor. Now I find myself having to explain why I’ve left so many jobs (because I move a lot), and also having to reassure potential employers that I’m not planning on taking off again any time soon. I do think that people should go out and get involved – and I’m even OK if part of their motivation is building their resumes, as long as they appreciate the experience for the experience’s sake as well. They should be willing to learn, grow, and even contribute to cause, in addition to improving their profile. Too many times people don’t do this and just want to check off another item on a list. Hopefully, those who are successful make the most of their opportunities to learn as they build their resumes.

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  4. I would say that the importance of what school you attended depends upon your employer. Some employers place more value on Ivy League schools for example, while others do not. But Duck is right — in the end, it’s about what you accomplish and how you can help a company make money, save time or save money.

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  5. I found this post very interesting as it relates directly to some of the things I felt during my college application/admissions process. Many of my peers criticized my decision to attend the university I picked (a university which offered me a scholarship that covered the entire cost of attendance including extra money for books) because I was accepted into other schools with higher rankings and such. Although it would be nice to be able to say I attend one of the top schools in the nation I honestly would rather say that I attend a wonderful university that I will be graduating from completely debt-free.

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    • Graduating debt-free is completely worth it! Ask your friends how they feel about your decision in the years after college when they’re paying off loans and you aren’t, and I think they’ll take back their criticisms. 🙂

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  6. In the UK, occasionally attending a very prestigious uni (Oxford/Cambridge/Kings/Durham) can count against you as employers believe that you are over-qualified for the roles that they offer and will therefore get bored and seek alternative employment. I have a friend who recently took their degree off their CV (they got a 1st class Chemistry degree from Oxford) because they were rejected from so many jobs on account of being over-qualified. Something else to bear in mind in the minefield of choosing which uni/college to go to.

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  7. Well for one we could start with broadcasting this in my school, but even then the principal here honors themself with the credit of sending some substantial number of students to ubc each year. In fact, we have many exchange students that are not at all interested in learning English but just so they can go back and said the did high school on the west is enough. I think we just get caught up in the whole realm of what universities want from us, even in course selections they recently added a new intense science program that starts in grade10 and helps you skip over 11 and 12 one way or another and all the teachers always pushed us to be extroverts and join everthinnnggg because is all ‘good for you’.
    Then there comes the point where your success becomes a medallion for your parents and teahers rather than yours, it’s really hard to not be unsettled when a friend immediately tells you the ‘right course’ because apparently another friend had gotten screwed over in the job process/offer..
    Great post though, much more to the point than mine so thanks for including me ! Appreciate it , hopefully I will come up with a satisfactory answer when the time comes (:

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  8. I love this,Christine. I think too much wrong emphasis is put on getting in the right college- and doing certain things just to ‘look good.’ It lacks a certain authenticity, I think? I love how you emphasize ‘being’ the right kind of person, not just ‘doing’ things. And as a Christian, it’s all about trust and knowing God will get you where He wants you!

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  9. Lovely subject it is! You know, Christine, its funny how so many people see the truth, but no one can really help these situations. I often wonder why this is so…if lots of people have reasoned that a certain thing is wrong, why does that certain thing still remain the modus operandi?

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