A reader recently wrote to me with an interesting question. He was seeking advice on how his teenage daughter might find an after-school job. He wanted her to learn discipline and develop a strong work ethic, both great qualities for a young student to develop. Though I respect the after-school job as a method of gaining these qualities, I suggested to the reader an alternative path.
When I was in high school, I was also encouraged to find an after-school job. Where I lived, most of my options were in fast food. Although I could have made extra money this way, I decided to try something else. I’ll be honest: It was a fairly controversial move at the time.
I made the decision not to take a job during high school. In order to do this, I committed to spending as little money as possible and to saving everything I could. This made my plan more feasible.
Then, I set out to use my spare time differently. I studied day and night to get the best grades I could. With my remaining free time, I looked for volunteer projects. I also founded a mentorship program at my high school for high risk third-graders. Nobody paid me for these projects, but they were investments in myself and in my community. These projects taught me about discipline and work ethic, just like a traditional job would have.
When it was time to apply to college, I had a wealth of experience that I could include on my applications. I had initiated a community project that made me stand out from other applicants. I gained real experience that I could include on my resume. This experience, along with my high marks, resulted in scholarship money I desperately needed.
In fact, the scholarships I received were worth far more than I ever would have made working after school for a tiny paycheck. Given the minimum wage at the time, it would have taken me four years working 40 hours per week to earn the amount of money I received in scholarships.
I understand that choosing not to work during high school is a luxury that not all kids have. I don’t want to knock the teenagers who are working many hours on top of high school to contribute to their families’ incomes. I have incredible respect for these teenagers.
Those high schoolers who are lucky enough to have a choice may want to look past the basic options. Don’t assume being paid is always the No. 1 priority. Think about what profession or real world cause you’d like to learn more about and go from there. You will gain new skills, differentiate yourself from your peers, and may even get a little scholarship money along the way.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Memphis Daily News.
Angela Copeland is a career coach and CEO at her firm, Copeland Coaching.