For years, applicants to competitive schools and colleges have been advised – by parents, teachers, guidance counselors, college placement officers, and well intentioned friends alike – to present themselves as “well rounded” individuals: involved in everything, good at most things, and fully self-actuated in every category that can be measured. Get a part in every play; earn high honors grades; make at least two varsity squads; play the piano; be active in student government; and participate in as many clubs and community activities as can be managed before exhaustion sets in. This formula, they all contend, will guarantee placement at the highest levels and assure a lifetime of success. A great concept, in theory, but almost entirely wrong.
The truth is that nearly every competitive student in America is grinding along a pathway similar to that of every other competitive student in every community across this great Land. With grade inflation, huge numbers of kids have honors grades. Many students can and do list a dozen or more activities on their various applications, just to impress upon some admissions committee that they are, indeed, well rounded. In short, many applications, at all levels, look exactly alike! Everybody is well rounded, but very few have truly enjoyed or benefitted from all of the activities they have felt compelled to list; there is simply not enough time during the school year to do dozens of things well! Schools know it. College admissions offices know it.
The race to be well rounded is actually a folly, based upon a misunderstanding of what well rounded was intended to mean. Here is the explanation:
Schools and colleges want each class to be well rounded, not every student in the class!
What? Can this be true? Yes, it is true. When an admissions committee at any competitive school or college assembles an incoming class, it is certainly interested in finding a blend of musicians, athletes, writers, philosophers, artists, and specialists in dozens of other fields of inquiry – a well-rounded class. That class will be primarily comprised of specialists, though, students who have shown great capacity in one or two areas of strong interest. It is easier to discern excellence by evaluating the depths of understanding exhibited by a student in a few areas than by analyzing the breadth of superficial involvement in a dozen areas whose principal value may have been as resume entries. So, what can we take from this turn of events?
In essence, every applicant makes his best case for admission by being himself, not by signing up for extracurriculars that will look good on a common app. If soccer is her passion, the applicant will make a compelling case just by enumerating the dozens of summer camps, awards, stats, and other accomplishments she has earned through that passionate pursuit. Each will become part of a well-rounded class; none is expected to be entirely well rounded as an individual. After all, the completely well-rounded applicant has no rough edges to round, which renders the chosen school or college nearly useless, doesn’t it?