The Counterintuitive Magic of Follow-Through

What do Noble Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai and tennis champion Roger Federer’s backhand have in common? They are both, in their own unique ways, model examples of follow-through, the unsung hero of greatness. There’s the spotlight moment, but then there’s the stuff that happens afterward. In some ways, the easiest aspect of Malala’s uncompromising stance on female education is the stance itself. But if that were all it took, there would be hundreds of Malalas! The harder part is following through on that commitment, when no one is there to watch, and when her life is on the line day in and day out.

In tennis, it’s impossible for Mr. Federer to hit a winning backhand without physically connecting racquet to ball. But contact alone won’t get the job done. After racquet meets ball, Federer’s form on his follow-through becomes a crucial determinant of the ball’s ultimate destiny. (It’s a head scratcher: how can the form of a swing affect the path and distance of a ball after it has already been struck!?)

More often than not, the success of any effort relies as much or more on follow-through than the spotlight moment itself. How many of us have come up with an idea for the next game-changing app or business model? And how many of us have followed through like Zuckerberg, or Bezos, or Musk? It’s no surprise, then, that follow-through is something employers seek hungrily in potential employees. Follow-through implies consistency, commitment, and completion. And those three things are excellent indicators of success.

Future Success is a Key Applicant Attribute for Top Colleges

We have written at length about the following cycle: top colleges do their best to recruit bright, ambitious students in the hopes that they will graduate and achieve great success in their careers. But why? Successful graduates benefit schools (powerfully) through alumni donations and promoting the school brand. When graduates go on to cure diseases, win the office of Presidency, appear on talk shows as experts, write best-selling books, and so on, their alma mater’s stock goes up (by association) and the school becomes that much more desirable to would-be applicants. The better the brand name, the higher the demand. The higher the talent level of the applicant pool, the more selective a school can be. The better a school’s ability to graduate cohorts of successful classes, well, you get the picture: the cycle repeats. So, top colleges want students who are marked with success, or at least show strong signs of becoming successful. If follow-through is a key indicator, it’s something you need to understand and develop in your high school years if your goal is to attend a top school.

But What Exactly is Follow-Through?

At its simplest level, follow-through is promise fulfillment. Suppose you commit to mowing the lawn. Perhaps you get points simply for volunteering to do the job, but the value of that gesture will fade until the lawn is actually cut. But let’s take a look at another example. A surgeon completes an epic operation, patient is saved, families and friends rejoice, the doctor is figuratively a lifesaver. But is the job truly done? What if the very next day the patient’s condition were to deteriorate due to improper post-op management? In this example, follow-through requires a deep understanding of where to place the goal post: not at successful surgery, but at full recovery. Sure, a successful operation is a critical step on the path to recovery, but by itself isn’t enough. This is where most folks get it wrong: mistaking shinier, early-stage milestones for a more meaningful prize. Folks who exhibit patterns of follow-through tend to understand all the ingredients required for success, and not just some. Follow-through is not only a mark of dependability, but also, an indicator of success.

So, where can schools find evidence of this on a college application?

Here are a few examples:

  •      Sports: being involved for four years (bonus points for upward trajectory along the way, JV to Varsity, becoming team captain, becoming All-State)
  •      Music: playing an instrument/performing for four years (bonus points for distinctions)
  •      Community Service: consistent involvement over a period of time, or returning to the same project time and again, developing it, growing it, creating impact that will outlast your tenure)
  •      Clubs and Activities: not just being a member of NHS for four years, but becoming an officer; not just being a member of school newspaper for four years, but rising to the position of Editor
  •      Work/Jobs: maintaining the same after-school or summer job for more than one year;  committing to a personal business venture/startup year after year
  •      Hobbies: not just having a hobby, but doing something interesting with it beyond what the average enthusiast might; taking it to the next level somehow

When employers review a candidate’s resume, in addition to taking certain elements at face value (quality of alma mater, level of employment, etc.), they take notice of patterns. The good version of a pattern is one that suggests consistency, commitment, focus. For example, employment with the same employer for several years. Or lateral moves, but within the same industry, on a clear upward trajectory toward something. Patterns aren’t always the desirable kind, though. Sometimes, candidates can be consistent in their inability to stick to a single job for more than a year, or consistent in their sharp left turns between unrelated industries, indicating scattered or, even worse, non-existent goals.

The same rules apply to college applicants. The strongest senior year profiles are those that, upon a quick glance, suggest high levels of follow-through through some level of consistency within certain interests and among them.

A Helpful Checklist to Determine Your Follow-Through Score:

For those of you still in high school, here’s a checklist you can use to assess your “follow-through score” for each of your activities. You can apply this to previous activities, but you can also use it to help inspire you to engage more productively in current or future activities. See if you can check two or more boxes:

Activity Checklist

     Did I do something specific that would make me hard to replace?

     Did I bring an idea to the organization that was somehow new?

     Did I leave behind some kind of legacy, or impact beyond the year I was there?

     Did one of my ideas inspire others to follow in my footsteps? Did I somehow grow the organization or positively affect interest in the organization?

     Over time, did I develop mastery of a skill I was previously only “mediocre” in?

     Did I develop a brand new skill?

     Did this experience change the way I thought about something?

     Did this experience introduce me to a new perspective? (Fill in the blanks: “Whereas I once thought _____ about ______, I now think _____ because of ______ aspect of this experience.”)

     Did this experience turn me onto a potential future career goal? Or, did this experience turn me away from a potential future career goal, and propel me in another direction?

If you can check two or more boxes for a particular activity, chances are, you have the ability to showcase “follow-through” in your activities list on your application, or possibly even include aspects of it in your essays. If you find yourself NOT checking as many boxes as you’d hoped, do not despair. Use it as a call-to-action to engage with your upcoming activities slightly differently. Adjust your approach in such a way that you will be able to check boxes on this list, not just so you can check a box, but because the value behind this approach will serve you well as you develop your application muscles so you can flex your potential for future success.

Sarish Kasat graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University in 2008 with a B.A. in Economics. With a love for building businesses and mentoring youth, Sarish left his position as Vice President of Wells Fargo Securities in 2015 to become the General Manager at Admissionado, a premiere college admissions consulting company focused on helping students get into their dream schools.

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