THE MYTH OF THE PERFECT WELL-ROUNDED COLLEGE APPLICANT
In recent years, there has been a shift in the college admissions process away from the traditional notion of the ideal “well rounded student.” Rather than seeking students involved in countless activities, colleges now value applicants who can effectively communicate their passions, goals, and values. Being truly well-rounded means discovering and pursuing one’s passions, rather than trying to be involved in everything.
Now, admissions officers are more interested in college applicants who actively engage in subjects they truly enjoy and demonstrate a consistent upward trajectory of excellence in those areas. Rather than accumulating an extensive list of activities for the sake of appearance; students should ideally master a select few interests. This way, colleges can enroll a diverse class of students with unique interests, talents, and areas of expertise.
As such, it is crucial for students to focus on discovering their passions and investing time and effort in cultivating expertise in those areas. Students who demonstrate a genuine dedication and achievement in a specific field stand out in the competitive college admissions process and contribute to the creation of a dynamic and accomplished student body.
Extracurricular Activities: Quality Over Quantity
While being involved in a range of extracurricular activities can seem impressive, colleges are actually more interested in the quality of your involvement than the quantity. Admissions officers want to see that you have a real interest and passion for the activities you participate in, and that you have made meaningful contributions to those activities over time.
Niche.com recommends that students choose 3-4 activities that truly interest them and take on leadership roles or other meaningful roles to contribute, if possible. This demonstrates your dedication and commitment and can show colleges that you have what it takes to thrive in their academic community.
Community Involvement: Volunteering and Civic Engagement
Community involvement can take many forms, from volunteering at a local nonprofit to participating in political activism. It’s best if you have a genuine interest in the issues and causes you take part in.
Similar to personal activities, the key is to focus on quality over quantity when it comes to community involvement. Choose opportunities that align with your values and interests and that allow you to make a tangible impact rather than simply checking off a list of volunteer activities. This could mean volunteering regularly at a local organization, taking on a leadership role in a community service project, or organizing your own volunteer initiative.
Leadership Experience: How to Stand Out as a Leader
Leadership experience can be valuable in any context, but it is especially important in the admissions process. If you have the opportunity to take on a leadership role in one of your extracurricular activities, it can be a great way to stand out. Common examples of leadership roles include team captain, club officer, or project leader, but leadership experience can also be demonstrated in other ways, such as through entrepreneurial ventures, community service projects, or personal initiatives.
When highlighting your leadership experience on your college application, it’s important to focus on the impact you made in that role. What did you accomplish? How did you inspire and motivate others? What did you learn from the experience? By demonstrating your leadership skills and the impact you have made, you can show colleges that you have the potential to be a leader on their campus as well.
Work Experience: Paid or Unpaid
Whether it’s paid or unpaid, work experience can show admissions officers that you have developed skills and gained experiences outside of the classroom, and that you are capable of balancing schoolwork with other responsibilities.
When highlighting your work experience on your college application, it’s important to focus on the skills and experiences you gained from those jobs. What did you learn? How did you grow as a result of your work? Whether you worked part-time at a local business or completed an internship in your field of interest, emphasizing the skills you developed and the impact you made can help you stand out as an applicant.
Passion Projects: Pursuing Personal Interests and Hobbies
Pursuing personal interests and hobbies can demonstrate your creativity, curiosity, and dedication. Whether you’re an aspiring artist, musician, or entrepreneur, colleges want to see that you have a passion for something outside of your academic coursework.
When highlighting your passion projects on your college application, show how those projects have helped you grow and develop as a person. What have you learned? How have you challenged yourself? If you’ve started your own business, launched a creative project, or pursued a unique hobby, emphasizing the impact those experiences have had on you can set you apart as an applicant.
The Scout Guide interviewed college counselors at various private schools to see what they had to say about the idea of the “well-rounded” college applicant. Jessica Browning from the Carolina Day School in Asheville, North Carolina states:
“Bottom line: there is no perfect formula for a student to follow when presenting themselves to a college in an application. The most important thing a college admissions officer wants to see when they read an application is the ‘essence’ of who the student is, and they hope to see this through the essays, activities list, recommendations, transcript, and (sometimes) a personal interview. An applicant taking the time to explore their interests and actively engage in their own journey could have just as compelling an application as one who has established themselves a standout philanthropist.”
Beyond the College Application Process
Extracurriculars are important beyond trying to appear “well-rounded” or “specialized” on college applications. Growing up is all about finding your own interests, and extracurriculars are the perfect way to do that. Many students feel lost in high school, so expecting them to know exactly what their passions and interests are from the get-go is an impossible demand. Through trying out different types of clubs and activities (both in school and out in the community), students can find new interests and things they wish to explore. This can also help them figure out what to study, as well as which clubs and activities to join, when they get to college.
Embracing Your Individuality in the Admissions Process
On the surface, colleges are looking for applicants who show academic excellence and have the motivation to make the most of the college experience. Curriculum and college prep courses, as well as high standardized test scores, are all important factors for admission. But evidence of extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and leadership roles that demonstrate commitment, responsibility, creativity, critical thinking skills, resilience, and character are also considered. Colleges want to see a student’s passion for learning and enthusiasm for the college experience.
More than that though, colleges are looking for students who have honed in on the things they are passionate about and have become highly accomplished in those areas. At the end of the day, the most important thing you can do as a college applicant is to be true to yourself and show that you are a unique and multifaceted individual with your own interests, abilities, and perspectives.
Rather than trying to fit into a narrow mold of what you think colleges are looking for, focus on highlighting your own individuality. Top schools would rather have a student who is exceptional at a few activities than a lot of students who are only average at a wide variety.
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Yuki is a skilled educator with a degree in Chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University. She discovered her passion for teaching math after tutoring at an after-school program. With five years of tutoring experience, Yuki creates a supportive learning environment for students. Outside of tutoring, she enjoys trying new cuisines and playing piano.