Well-Rounded College Applicants

Well Rounded Students, Well Rounded Candidates, Well Rounded Ivy Applicants

Highly selective colleges don’t seek well-rounded students. They seek singularly talented students.

It never ceases to amaze us how parents and students still believe that being well-rounded is a positive in highly selective college admissions. The regular readers of our college admissions blog sure do know better. Being well-rounded not only hasn’t been a plus but it’s been a major negative for many years now in highly selective college admissions. Sure, there was a time when well-rounded students — students who excelled at the flute, at wide receiver, and at Key Club were sought after by the nation’s elite universities. But that time is not now. That time passed quite a while ago. Well-rounded college applicants as the sought after group in highly selective college admissions…if the back of your SAT vocabulary card for ‘anachronism’ doesn’t use this as an example, it sure should!

And yet parents still boast to us about their well-rounded children. And you can imagine that if this is how a parent is depicting a student, this is likely not so dissimilar from how the student will later depict him or herself on college applications. The truth is that being well-rounded sure can be important in life. It can be really nice to bust out some Beethoven on the piano at a dinner party (who does that?). It can be nice to catch a football on a crowded beach. But that which is important in life isn’t necessarily important in highly selective college admissions.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” the ubiquitous author writes, “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness…you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good.” Gladwell is absolutely right on. It was true for Bill Gates with programming. It was true for Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors with his three-point shot (Steve Nash even recently termed Curry “the greatest shooter in NBA history”). Don’t be ordinary at lots of things. Be extraordinary at one thing. Ordinary’s boring. Extraordinary’s anything but boring. Highly selective colleges don’t want boring. They want extraordinary. Understood? We hope so.

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12 Comments

  • JMazzarella says:

    What a sad commentary on the state of higher education. The most impactful innovations and advances often arise from multidisciplinary understanding. We are looking for and creating “excellent sheep”…the hyper specialist with a narrow aperture of understanding and thinking. There is nothing better than a student accomplished in humanities and the sciences with a keen intellect and curiosity.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      You’re misinterpreting the points in this post. We fully support the tremendous benefits of a liberal arts education. But being good at lots of things and a master of nothing in extracurriculars (as well as in academics) doesn’t lead to the innovations and advances you speak of. We encourage you to read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” Bill Gates, a master of coding, has made tremendous advances for humanity, particularly in Africa.

      • Kanja says:

        Just 1 or 2 examples out of 7 billion? Different students have different strengths. Some are focused and excel in one direction and some flourish in multi disciplinary environment. It is unwise to give a mandate on which students are preferred in the admission process. Besides, even if a College prefers one type of student over another, that College is missing out on some excellent applicants from the not-so-preferred category.

        • Ivy Coach says:

          Hi Kanja,

          That may be your opinion, one you’re entitled to have, but it is surely not the opinion of every single highly selective college in America. All of these schools seek singularly talented students, not well-rounded ones.

  • Lark America says:

    I know this post is over a year old but I would like clarification. Is the author saying that students who wish to get accepted into an ivy league school demonstrate focus and expertise in one subject such as music or economics as oppossed to an overall King Midas applicant in that s/he is golden at everything they touch? Again, sorry for being late to the party.

  • Valerie says:

    This is, indeed, a sad commentary on the college admissions process. Who, ultimately, is more likely to be successful in life: the well-rounded kid who excels academically and can function collaboratively in many different groups from the soccer team to the band to the AcaDeca Club… or the kid who has been in his bedroom for 15 years perfecting the oboe? On our visits to elite colleges this past year, we met a fair proportion of slightly odd, socially awkward kids who, perhaps, were very good at some one thing. I doubt most of those kids are the leaders of tomorrow. Maybe the tide is changing because after rejections at a few liberal arts colleges who said they were looking for “unique” and “quirky,” my daughter who gets straight A’s, plays in the band, is on swim team, and does volunteer work was admitted to Stanford. Perhaps Stanford is on the leading edge of looking for kids who can navigate a wide range of social groups and skills.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      The tide is most certainly not turning and you’ve misinterpreted what a singularly talented student is. A singularly talented student is not socially awkward, as you suggest. Is Kobe Bryant socially awkward? He devoted much of his life to perfecting his basketball game. He doesn’t seem socially awkward to us! Is Malala Yousafzai socially awkward? She’s made it her life’s cause to advance the cause of the education of young women. Congratulations on your well-rounded daughter’s admission to Stanford. But don’t mistake your daughter’s admission for a turning tide in admissions. As our regular readers know well, we have more students earn admission to Stanford than any other school just about every year. And our students are most certainly not well-rounded. Nor would we wish them to be. The folks who shape our world — the captains of industry — if you really think about it and contrary to your assertion, they’re singularly talented individuals. Perhaps you should add Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” to your summer reading list.

      • Valerie says:

        I’m not necessarily saying that YOU are wrong in your assertion that many colleges are looking for what you call “singularly talented” students. We certainly heard the words “quirky” and “unique” thrown around a lot by admissions officers. I’m ashamed to say that my alma mater posed an essay asking kids about their “idiosyncrasy,” which seems to misunderstand both the connotation of that term and (what ought to be) the goal of college admissions. My point is that these “singularly talented” “idiosyncratic” students are not likely to be the most successful in our society. Are Barack Obama and Ami Bera “singularly talented”? Obviously not, since both are men of many talents who navigate among different professions and many groups in society. On the other hand, is Kobe Bryant truly successful? I don’t follow basketball, but unless you tell me that he can succeed in politics or business and family life in addition to bouncing a basketball, I would say no. I guess you’d say the Yo-Yo Champion of North America is a great candidate because s/he is “singularly talented,” but most employers would prefer the kid who can organize a group science project in the morning, volunteer with ESL learners in the afternoon, and play decent game of tennis in the evening. Maybe some of these admissions officers need to get out in the real world!

  • Andrew Falcon says:

    Valerie, you are missing Ivy Coach’s point. Ivy Coach’s advice pertains to the singular goal of obtaining a place at an Ivy League school. It does not concern success in life in general or what employers may or may not look for post-graduation or how to glide seamlessly between different social groups or strata in society. The advice does not evaluate whether Admissions Officers are correct in the criteria they set when such criteria are assessed against the preferences of employers or society in general. The Advice concerns what the criteria are and how to submit an application that maximizes one’s chances of admission to an Ivy league school. The point is that Ivy League schools want well rounded, diverse classes composed of individuals that contribute a specific world-class talent to the mix. In reality, the vast majority of Ivy League applicants are probably well rounded in that they excel in a wide range of academic and sporting arenas. However, Ivy Coach’s advice to applicants is not to predicate their applications on how well-rounded they are, but to identify the thing that they are best at, market themselves based on their achievements in this specific area, and explain how their achievements in this area can contribute and perhaps add diversity to the overall mix. And yes, Kobe Bryant is truly successful. Aside from his world class basketball ‘spike’ and commensurate earnings, he is married with three kids, engages in philanthropy and runs a $100m private equity fund among other business interests. This is in addition to harnessing his childhood experiences in Italy to pick up fluent Italian.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      This is our favorite response to a comment in all our years of writing a college admissions blog. Thank you.

      • Andrew Falcon says:

        Thank you also. Applying for College is a very emotional journey for students and their families, involving the culmination of years of hard work by the student and oftentimes hefty financial inputs from parents. No-one wants to see a student, who tries extremely hard and succeeds at lots of things, disappointed. It is at this point where one needs to look at how things actually work, rather than how we want things to work even if the current way of doing things seems counterintuitive or not applicable to the ‘real world’. Those issues can be addressed once a child is accepted.

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi, I am a junior and i do MUN, Programming and Robotics, Soccer and I started my own volunteer organization. Do these extra curriculars make me to well rounded? If so please advise me on which ones to continue on with.

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