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The Myth of the Well-Rounded Student: Colleges Want Specialists

By Kate, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

One of the first things I do when working with families that have come to IvyWise for guidance is debunk the persistent admissions myth that colleges are looking for “well-rounded” students. In reality, colleges are looking for “pointy” kids in order to build a well-rounded class.

Why Colleges Want Specialists

It’s simple: students who develop a specialty area are often in a stronger position to stand out in competitive applicant pools. But why? Colleges want to build a well-rounded class and meet their institutional needs. Whether it’s more history majors or engineering students, all schools have different institutional needs that change from year to year. It’s important for a school to know how a student will fit into the campus community, and a specialty is one way to understand a student better while also filling a certain institutional need. Specialties also signal to admissions officers that this student knows their goals and motivations and what makes them a good fit for a particular school.

How to Develop a Specialty

All IvyWise counselors are former admissions officers. We have all read applications and made difficult decisions about who gets in and who does not, so we know that admissions officers will be looking to identify your interests and how you’ve utilized the resources available to you to develop and grow your knowledge in that area. But how do you explore your interests and develop your specialty?

Clubs and Activities
Exploring your academic interests in relevant clubs and activities is a great way to explore interests and highlight your commitment to a topic: you are showing you’re your dedicated enough in this area to invest your free time there!

  • School clubs & activities: Join existing academic clubs and affinity groups. If one doesn’t exist, consider starting it! Remember that your contribution in these groups is what is most important: get involved, make an impact, be an integral member.
  • Community Organizations & Activism: Getting involved in local community organizations related to your academic interests are a great way to gain understanding and make an impact in your community. These roles often provide insight into intersectional issues in a field and provide context that might get lost in academic articles and courses.
  • Competitions: Academic competitions are another way to pursue interests. Think the American Mathematics Competitions and science fairs.

Learning Beyond the Classroom
Taking it upon yourself to deepen your learning in your area of interest beyond what is taught in class demonstrates academic curiosity and helps you write compelling essays that reveal your depth of knowledge in a field.

  • Read industry websites and journals: Stay up-to-date on the latest advancements and trends in your field of interest by consistently reading related publications. Bonus points for following them on social media for up-to-the-minute reporting and a visual reminder in your feed to catch up on reading!
  • Take online courses: Learn more about your interest by completing related online courses. Coursera and edX offer many free and self-paced options.
  • Read books; listen to podcasts: Did an interesting topic come up in class this year? Learn more about important concepts, theories, and positions related to your interest by reading non-fiction and fiction works. Podcasts can also be a great way to stay up to date with current events.
  • Attend webinars and speaker series: Many universities, community organizations, businesses, and professional groups produce speaker series to present new findings and discuss current industry trends. These events are a great way to keep learning and networking with professionals and like-minded individuals.

Applied experiences
Getting real-life, professional experience in a field is invaluable to your own discovery of your interests and a high-impact way to demonstrate your drive and commitment to learning in the admissions process. Developing a working relationship with professionals in your industry is an added benefit. Strong relationships can yield impressive supplemental letters of recommendation, so make the most of these experiences!

  • Internships & Research positions: While many of these positions have moved online, there are still opportunities out there for motivated students! Reach out to faculty conducting research in your field, connect with local businesses and professionals, get in touch with local government officials, or find non-profits and community groups working on issues related to your interests. Be sure to do your research on the person and organization’s work and communicate why you’d like to learn more about their work and the skills you can contribute!
  • College Courses and Programs: Many colleges offer summer programs on-campus and online that provide an opportunity for students to complete a course tied to their future major. These classes allow students to dig into their field and work on group projects and research with peers.

There is a lot of nuance to the college admissions process, and developing and demonstrating a specialty is just one of the many things admissions officers are looking at when evaluating college applications. At IvyWise, we can work with you to identify and develop those “pointy” interests, as well as provide guidance on academics, college lists, testing, and more. Contact us today for more information on an Initial Consultation and our college counseling services for students from 9th-12th grade.

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