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

By Christine, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

“To get into a good college, do I need to play an instrument, join a team sport, participate in community service, run for student government, win robotics and writing competitions, sing in the school musical, write for the newspaper, and design the yearbook cover?”

One of the most common questions I receive as a college counselor is some version of the above. As the college admissions process becomes increasingly competitive and opaque, students feel pressured to do it all. However, doing it all risks diluting time and energy and becoming a “jack of all trades and a master of none.” On the other hand, admissions officers seek students who demonstrate expertise, which requires a commitment to and depth in areas of genuine interest. Indeed, rather than composing an incoming class of well-rounded students, colleges desire “pointy” specialists who come together to comprise a well-rounded class. In other words, colleges look for students who have a defined interest like engineering, business, or writing that they are well versed in.

What Does It Mean to Be a Well-Rounded Student?

Being “well-rounded” means that a student actively participates in various educational and leisure activities. College admissions committees like to admit students who can demonstrate a depth and breadth of knowledge in areas that genuinely interest them. That’s why we advise students to choose activities that align with what they are passionate about and focus their energy on developing their expertise in those areas.

Why Do Colleges Want Specialists?

Bringing together students with diverse, unique backgrounds, interests, and experiences enhances the community and its intellectual and social life. Students tend to grow more and in new ways when they live with and learn from peers who are different from them. Additionally, colleges have their own institutional needs. They have orchestras, dance troupes, soccer teams, physics labs, Spanish departments, etc. to fill, and “pointy” students contribute their passion and talents in specific ways. When admissions officers and committees evaluate applications, they often consider how a particular student will contribute to their campus. “What will this student bring to our community?” they will ask. Students who demonstrate a depth of knowledge and curiosity and/or achievements in specific areas tend to stand out more in the admissions process. Admissions officers have a better idea of how a specialist will contribute to the school.

How Can You Become a Specialist?

So, how can a student become a specialist? As IvyWise counselors, we draw from our experience as former admissions officers to work with students; we understand what colleges are looking for in applicants, and our expertise guides us in helping students identify their interests and pursue them organically, effectively, and fully. We also recognize that specialty is not built overnight but comes with time and dedication, which is why we recommend receiving early and regular guidance.

Below is a brief example of how a student drawn to politics can develop a “pointy” profile. As I often counsel students: pursue your interest deeply but also approach it from different angles to give it dimensionality.

Extracurricular Activities

Political engagement involves knowledge of current national and global affairs and how the various levels of government function. School activities such as debate, mock trial, Model United Nations, and student government are excellent ways to increase one’s understanding of politics. To gain depth, students should be dedicated to their activities throughout high school and strive to lead and impact their club community positively.

Hands-on Experience

Experiential learning is another effective way to specialize. As the saying goes, “all politics is local,” so a student of politics can gain invaluable real-world experience volunteering with a local campaign or government agency/office, for example. Door-to-door canvassing or grassroots organizing are some of the best ways to get to know one’s community, its constituent needs, and ways to address them.

Academic Knowledge

Beyond taking classes at school aligned with one’s interest in politics, like U.S. History or U.S. Government, students can acquire in-depth knowledge by taking classes outside the school, such as free online college courses through MOOC platforms such as Coursera (e.g., Yale Professor Ian Shapiro’s Moral Foundations of Politics) and edX (e.g., US Public Policy: Social, Economic, and Foreign Policies by Harvard University). Of course, nothing replaces reading in the quest for knowledge. Curious about what drives our members of Congress? Read Yale Professor Dave Mayhew’s seminal Congress: The Electoral Election. Do ends really justify the means? Read Machiavelli’s The Prince. Students can also display their knowledge by participating in competitions like the Courage in Profile essay contest.

In today’s complex college admissions landscape, developing and demonstrating a specialty can be a helpful way for a student to distinguish themselves. At IvyWise, we work with each student 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 sixth to 12th grade.

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