Some experts say the pros of high school jobs outweigh the cons. That’s partly because connecting a college application to a specific passion or theme is critical — and a job is one of the many ways a student can do that.(GETTY IMAGES)
Many students and their families wonder about the potential benefits of working a job while in high school, particularly its impact on college applications and whether it can make a difference in the competitive world of college admissions.
Some experts say the pros of high school jobs outweigh the cons. That’s partly because connecting a college application to a specific passion or theme is critical — and a job is one of the many ways a student can do that.
If you’re a high school student contemplating a job alongside academics, here are some pros and cons to consider.
Pros of Working While in High School
Makes Free Time Purposeful
Lee Norwood, owner of Annapolis College Consulting in Maryland, says colleges worry less about a job and more about how a student uses free time. Students should weave a common theme throughout their application to show genuine interest in a particular endeavor.
Norwood cited the example of one of her clients who worked at a local donut shop. The high school student worked with the shop to craft a unique donut with proceeds dedicated to a specific charity. That became a theme for the student’s college application.
Using a specific job as a platform to stand out in the college application process is one of many effective strategies, Norwood says.
Can Lead to Career Inspiration and Enhance College Learning
Jobs often give students a better idea of what to study in college.
Developing a career interest in high school can also lead to an impressive college application, says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.
The “critical component” of a college application “is being able to create a narrative around how that work experience will inform your college career,” she says. Many applicants fail to tell the story of how their experiences will translate to college.
Students who have a relevant job in high school or participate in a high school career pathway program usually establish a better idea of what they hope to study in college, says Pat Greco, senior director of thought leadership at Studer Education, an organization that works with education systems to improve student outcomes.
Students “typically pick a career that is known” to them, says Greco, a former schools superintendent in Wisconsin.
For example, students who want to work in the medical field usually think of doctors, nurses and physician assistants, Greco says. But until those students job shadow, intern or work in the environment, they often don’t understand how large and intricate industries are, with many different job options across numerous subfields, she says.
There are other jobs in the medical field that students forget about, including health care attorneys and medical consultants, Greco adds. Learning in college “is never a waste,” she says, “but that investment can be made so much more powerfully if, on the back end to that, you have a variety of different experiences” from high school that can develop your confidence in what you choose to study.
Demonstrates Valuable Life Skills
Whether a job is the focal point of a college application or briefly mentioned, experts say working teaches valuable life skills that should be highlighted.
Working with adults as opposed to solely peers as a high school student is a formative experience, Greco says.
“Not everybody has the privilege of being able to start their own nonprofits or volunteer in organizations that look good on a resume,” Pasquerella says. Colleges should always look at the economic and social constraints on students, she says, and the ways students are contributing to their families and communities through work available to them.
Regardless of the nature of a job, or even other significant responsibilities, high school students can demonstrate attributes such as critical thinking, effective oral communication, collaboration, ethical decision-making and adaptability in the face of change, Pasquerella says.
Holding a job also hones skills such as focus, time management and money management, says Norwood, and provides hands-on experience.
Helps Earn Money to Pay for College
While some students may need to work and others may choose to do so, students with jobs can help pay for some of their own expenses or save for college.
“I totally understand why you would work as a waitress at the beach … . You are bringing in hundreds of dollars a night,” Norwood says. “You can talk about that all throughout the college application because you’re still learning certain skills, certain maturity, and the story is that you were trying to earn the most money that you could at that time.”
Cons of Working in High School
Time-Consuming and Can Hurt Academic Performance
With a busy schedule, it can be challenging for high school students to dedicate time and energy to a job.
May Not Be Relevant to Academics
The most accessible or highest-paying jobs for high school students tend to be in the retail or service industries. That’s not necessarily what students may want to center their college application around or where they may hope to have a career.
In such cases, students may choose to emphasize other aspects of their life when completing college application materials.
Daniel says the job he held in high school, which paid minimum wage, was not what differentiated him during the college admissions process.
While he mentioned his job in his applications, he instead focused on his passion for robotics, his experience building a personal computer and his interest in computer science. While he noted his summer work, it was the consistent thread of dedication to robotics that enhanced his application, he says.
While working a high school job may not always help a high school student’s college application, it generally can’t hurt, some experts agree.
“I think busy people are more productive,” Norwood says.
Part-Time Jobs That Pay for College