Another common enquiry I seem to get on discussion forums are from recent college grads who wonder how to best position one’s self for business school in a few years’ time.
If there is one thing, it is to become talented and accomplished at something other than studying or academics.
If you haven’t already since childhood, get actively involved in something else other than academics – arts, sports, politics, entrepreneurship, nonprofit, religion, etc. Getting involved in these activities and becoming reasonably accomplished not only is good for your soul (as well as your overall well-being and feeling like you’re part of a community), it will give you something that academics cannot – street smarts. The “real world” (however you want to define it) rewards street smarts more than book smarts.
Folks who are preoccupied with window dressing their resumes don’t spend their free time nurturing their talents. These window dressers are more preoccupied with what looks good on a resume than they do actually pursuing something with a remote sense of sincerity. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the window dressers from the bona-fide overachievers, but usually it’s easy to tell. If you spend your time window dressing, chances are you aren’t fooling anybody (other than yourself).
Build a life, not a resume.
When you’re young and just out of college (or even a few years out) it’s hard – many of us get it. We’ve been there. There’s lots of pressure (either external or internal) and people telling you “what to do.” The best thing you can do for yourself is to do what’s best for yourself (even if you're not entirely sure what that is!), rather than giving up all your decision-making and choices to gatekeepers (adcoms, future employers you would give your left nut to work for, overbearing parents, peers/classmates/friends, etc.). You may not have the full confidence in your decisions because you feel you’re still a little green. But you will learn more from your own mistakes and regret far less later on if you made those decisions for yourself rather than planning out a career/life based on someone else’s terms (whomever that “someone else” may be – peer pressure, parents, imaginary adcoms, etc.).
Other than that, there is no real template, other than being as accomplished and talented as you can at whatever it is you do. We all wish there was some cheat sheet or formula for success – that if you do “A” and “B” will get you “C” – how we navigate our careers and lives would be so easy, predictable, and boring.
No one can teach you or show you how to be an overachiever, or how to be exceptional at something (whatever that “something” is). You either do, or you don’t.
It’s about making the most of your talents – whatever that talent is – believing in yourself, and then having the discipline, thick skin and heart to recover and get up from the many setbacks and failures you will experience along the way to that one notable achievement.
Most things that are hard or worthwhile to attain usually take a few years of you hauling ass before you start to see results. Real leadership positions, relationships with important people, exceptional achievements, and so forth all take time to earn.
Career choices, what to do with your free time, and so forth aren’t all about “what looks good for adcoms” or “what looks good for a resume.” Children worry about how to impress others. Adults do what’s best for themselves (and the offspring they're responsible for) -- irrespective of what others think.