Nearly forty years ago, a well respected New England college director of admissions made the first reference to “the well rounded student,” an almost mythical paradigm that has been chased and ultimately misinterpreted by millions of students ever since. It turns out that, after virtually every independent school, college, and university applicant in America has done everything possible to meet that standard – joining every club, playing every sport, signing up for any community service activity in sight – what was really meant was that every entering class should be well rounded, not every applicant!
The myth of well-roundedness is easily discredited when one considers that high school students don’t actually have too many hours in the school week to engage in dozens of extracurricular activities. Clearly, they cannot be expected to involve themselves in any single activity to any great depth. There is simply not enough time available. Signing up for clubs and other school optional activities for the sole purpose of putting a fatter list on some college applications is shallow, at best, and even dishonest to some degree. The rationale has always been that everyone else is doing it, so I have to do it, too.
The truth is that being really good at something – just one thing – is far more impressive to a college admissions committee than simply having signed up for everything in order to score points for participation. A long-time boarding school admissions director in Pennsylvania had a habit of exploring depth of knowledge in the hundreds of junior high schoolers he interviewed each fall. At the time, coin collecting was frequently cited as an area of interest, mostly by kids who thought it would sound good. To find out who was a real collector, the director asked hundreds of applicants over several years if there ever might have been any U.S. coin that included the name of that coin’s designer on the coin itself. Only once did a student reply that, yes, there was such a coin. In fact, the seventh grader said, the coin was a 1914 U.S. penny, and it carried the letters S V D B. When asked what those letters represented, the boy quickly responded that the S stood for the Seattle Mint and the V D B letters were the initials of the designer, Victor D. Brenner. The initials were discovered after the first year’s issue had been struck and were then removed.
That young man demonstrated the depth of his interest in coin collecting in one short reply. (He was admitted to the school and enjoyed a predictably successful career there and through graduation from an Ivy League college.) He was not especially well rounded, but contributed to a well-rounded entering class – a class of specialists that became well rounded in the aggregate.
In any given year, X college needs a tuba player for the orchestra; Y college just graduated a quarterback; and Z college is looking for urban studies majors. By developing a student’s genuine interests deeply, that student is more, not less, marketable to colleges. The same holds true in the job market, interestingly.
The lesson here, it seems, is that substance trumps superficiality. A passionate interest shows substance and owes no apologies to any admissions committee. Every selective admissions office is well aware of the well rounded application and what it usually means. To the contrary, the truly accomplished college applicant stands out from the crowd in one important way: The time it has taken to become really good at something almost always speaks volumes about that student’s commitment to excellence, a characteristic that is not so easy to find. Anyway, there couldn’t have been enough free time left over to be seriously involved in a dozen other activities.
Carter P. Reese Informed Educational Solutions
This is the fourth in a series of blogs written for parents of younger students, junior high age or so, who are thinking ahead about college admissions. We firmly believe that planning ahead can yield enormous benefits, and reduce anxiety about the transition from high school to college.