Writer Sarthak Sinha is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto and is one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20.

As students in their final year of high school apply to post-secondary, they’re eager to research what they’re signing up for. From seeking testimonies of past students to attending university fairs, there’s one question that evades even the most prepared seniors. The overemphasis on what can be learned serves to underemphasize how students can make an impact over the next four years.

Not surprisingly, a survey assessing prospective applicants’ priorities when choosing universities explained that course content, the academic reputation of the institution, and graduate employment rates were amongst the top three inquired topics.

Thinking of post-secondary education as the preparation for what awaits in the real world clouds the perception of opportunities that surround us in the present. The question each senior should be asking is not what they can learn from their four years, but in what capacity would the school allow them to contribute to a cause they feel passionate about.

Asking ‘how I can make an impact’ more frequently than ‘what more can I learn’ during my time at post-secondary has fundamentally transformed my educational experience. It allowed me to pursue three challenges which I couldn’t anticipate leaving high school.

First, it enabled me to not just consume knowledge, but be equally involved in the process of generating it. I spent a significant portion of my undergrad researching skin stem cells and discoveries from this work are now published in leading scientific journals.

Second, I embarked on the opportunity to transmit my passion for sciences by facilitating study sessions for introductory biology students. These sessions soon gained popularity amongst incoming first years and are now attended by up to 300 students per session.

Finally, I took leadership within the Doctors Without Borders chapter on campus by serving as the Vice President. Here, we fundraised close to $3,000 and organized prominent awareness events which connected their staff (from field staff to the Board of Directors) with students on campus. Together, the experience and skills gained far outweighed learning that happened while sitting in a lecture hall.

Each involvement evoked an intrinsic drive because I could see my efforts translating into quantifiable impact in science and on people’s lives. Seeing long hours pay off, knowing that people’s learning was made easier, and discovering insights that can fundamentally change and save lives are powerful, yet vastly unfamiliar, drives for most students. Although such opportunities can be elusive, the start towards them is by deliberately looking for ways in which you could leave your mark during your time in post-secondary education.

Too many university-bound students are consumed by the notion that consuming knowledge will inevitably be their predominant role as a post-secondary student. They inherit this notion by generations of students who precede them; failing to realize that the level of freedom and energy they will have as students will be unmatched for any other time in their life. From taking risks without worrying about paying bills to pulling all-nighters, for most, this time offers the exclusive opportunity to carve out a sense of identity while making a real impact on the world.

Whether it’s inquiring about available opportunities (or the flexibility to create them where none exist) at different institutions or evaluating their chances to stand out for top opportunities at large schools, taking the time to contemplate such questions can pay longstanding personal and professional dividends.

By Sarthak Sinha

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.