Substance v. Filler

Have you heard the story that came out last week about the potential presence of wood shavings in your parmesan cheese? It’s certainly been making the rounds!

Experts say it’s actually a wood-based product known as cellulose that keeps the cheese from clumping during transit and while it sits on store shelves. It’s harmless and legal under FDA regulations but it’s certainly stirred up a hornet’s nest about not only our cheese products, but also our food in general and opened up a larger discussion about truth in labeling after so many learned that approximately one-fifth of the grated cheese product on the market is adulterated to the point that it isn’t really fit to be called real cheese.

Instead, it’s basically filler. Harmless filler, yes, but still not actual food.

Real cheese or cheese-like filler?
Real cheese or cheese-like filler?

At the same time I learned about the lack of actual cheese in many of the products on the shelves of my local grocery store (!), the conversation between college counseling professionals online turned to the level of credibility and prestige college admission officers recognize for students who participate in organizations with impressive names like “The National Young Leaders Conference”or “The National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists” during their summer breaks.

When it comes to college applications, some counselors wanted to know, are these programs substance or filler? (To put it in another way – are they real food or a substitute, food-like product?)

The answer? It depends.

Without getting into the specifics surrounding individual programs, suffice to say there are a lot of sham organizations on the market that claim to offer unprecedented experiences, learning opportunities, and future connections to students who aspire to do great things in a variety of fields (medicine to business to politics to journalism, etc.). Said sham organizations also charge exhorbitant fees for the privilege – one that, in the end, amounts to nothing more than filler on a student’s college applications in the eyes of the admission counselors who read them. Even the programs that offer college credit from noted universities are filler, with the college credit incentive viewed as just one more attempt by the organizers to legitimize the program without making it necessarily more meaningful for the students or appealing for the college admission officers.

(What’s more, the credits don’t typically transfer to a student’s chosen institution later on.)

Are there any programs that college admission officers recognize as worth the time and effort?

Again, this isn’t the place to get into specifics, so rather than picking out particular programs for students to focus on in an effort to gain advantage in the application process, let’s talk instead about how admission officers evaluate the activities students put on their resumes. (In other words, it’s not about what a particular program is called, but what’s important is why you chose it and what you gained through the experience.)

For example, if you’re a future doctor and attend a week-long conference with other aspiring medical professionals in Washington D.C., you’ll hear lectures from noted doctors, observe in area medical clinics, and take a one-credit course in medical ethics to demonstrate and assess your interest in the field. The conference probably also has a fancy, important-sounding name for you to put on the activities list of your college applications and comes with a hefty price tag that heightens its prestige. But was it a really meaningful experience in the end? Did you gain true insight into what the day-to-day life of a doctor is like or just go through the motions to check off a box on your college application “To Do” list?

Alternatively, what if you forge a connection with a doctor in your community – a family friend, a relative, or even your own family physician – and inquire about opportunities to shadow (within reason) him or her for a few weeks during your summer break. Maybe there’s even a need in the office for someone to assist with filing and other simple tasks that can allow you the up close and personal chance to see what the day-to-day activities are like in a physician’s office. Or perhaps your church or another community organization helps with free medical clinics in your hometown or travels to underprivileged nations to volunteer with home building or water delivery projects – issues that may still be directly related to the health care field and are vitally important to preventing illness. Maybe you’re even fortunate enough to have the time and ability to volunteer with health-related organizations such as the Red Cross or the American Cancer Society and can learn about the health issues dealt with by these organizations while making a difference at the same time.

Each of those activities have the same things in common:

They are all related in some way to your prospective career field, they’re all (relatively) inexpensive, and they not only build your resume, but also give you hands-on, real-world experience that provides a service to others at the same time. Does “Red Cross volunteer” have the same prestigious-sounding ring to it as “Attended Fancy Schmancy Pre-Medical Conference in Washington D.C.” does? No – but admission officers are savvy enough when it comes to examining students’ activities lists that they will easily read between the lines and understand that you selected a task that was meaningful to you and engaged in an experience that gave you more than just a fancy title on your resume. (You might even get some really good essay fodder out of it at the same time – then the admission officers will really understand where you’re coming from!)

In the end, everyone has their own tastes of course. You might well prefer the flavor of the cheese product that contains cellulose to the one that doesn’t and that’s okay. (Remember, the FDA says it’s harmless so you’re not hurting yourself by consuming it.) But perhaps you don’t feel that way at all. Perhaps you like your cheese one hundred percent natural and – well – cheesy. You want all food and no filler. If that’s the case, you’ll obviously seek a preferable alternative.

Your extracurricular activities are only slightly the same; when it comes to those, I always recommend that you select the substance over filler. It will be worth it in the end – and much more satisfying.

(Need help discerning the substance versus the fillers on the market? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.)

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