The myth that colleges want well-rounded students has been upheld by many popular sources such as television sitcoms over several decades. The truth is that “a jack of all trades, and a master of none” is not what admissions officers look for as they seek top candidates. They seek students who have vested visible interests. Admissions officers love to see versatile applicants but versatility stands out when the student has a clear focus and a specific sense of motivation.
The Importance of Establishing Focus
Consider how majors at liberal arts universities work. You do not need to draw a straight line between your selected major and your future career. Your major simply groups together topics of interest and methods of inquiry, research, and presentation. The skills students gain from their major can then be combined with graduate specialization programs or work experience. If admissions officers can gain a sense of your “major” in high school, then they can determine you fit in the class they are building. Early on, you should reflect on what topics drive your intellectual curiosity. Do you characterize yourself as a Chilean historian, a classical music enthusiast, or spiritual youth leader, etc.?
Your application should make the reader confident that, if admitted, you will engage centers and programs built around specific fields. For example, students with extensive youth counselor experience in high school may pursue peer mentor positions in college. The potential peer mentor could have research experience in women and gender studies, so their college engagement may include mentorship for women in male-dominated fields.
Communicating Your Unique Intellectual Style
Those who read and make decisions on your application want to be able to have a sense of your signature intellectual style and your unique engagement with the community. Admissions officers want to see proof that you can master a certain field(s) or topic(s). Extracurricular and community leadership helps define your competitiveness. You can be seen as “like many others” if you’re mostly a member of clubs with no leadership in several activities. As a leader did you spearhead any new events or initiatives? Did you bridge communities through partnerships for a specific cause? How do you think about problem-solving?
In classes or other academic opportunities, what kinds of questions do you like to ask? Borrowing from one of the Common Application’s prompts, can you remember a time that you got so interested in a topic that you lost track of time learning about it? When you write your personal essay, you should be able to communicate your values based on your reflections. When choosing teachers to ask for recommendations, be sure that the teachers you ask know you well. It is more important that the writer knows you and thinks highly of you than whether they taught your potential major or field of interest.
Demonstrating Stand-out Focus
Admission officers think a lot about context. They recognize top talent when a student pursues the most rigorous coursework and goes beyond what is offered at their high school. Are they seeking academic experience at a community college, getting published or self-publishing? Application readers look for innovation so you might demonstrate that by starting a club in an area not yet served at your high school, conducting your own research (on your own or with a specialist in your field), or starting your own capstone project. Keep in mind that what matters is the depth and reach of your project, regardless of the type of project you decide to pursue. Check out the H&C Incubator, if you need help creating a project.
Consider the two abridged student profiles and determine which student has a clearer focus. Before you read each student profile, keep in mind that this is a simplified version of what admissions officers have to do with hundreds of applications. They are not comparing two students to each other, but thinking about a candidate’s competitiveness in relation to the larger pool of applicants. Can you see differences between their demonstrated reach and depth?
President of Student Assembly
Member of Future Business Leaders of America
Track runner 200m and shot put
National Honor Society
All As (note: A record of mostly As and a few A-s is sometimes simply noted as All As
5 AP classes (of the 8 offered at their school)
SAT scores at the 75th percentile of the graduating class
Founder of Math and Social Sciences Club
Essay on mathematical models used in biology submitted to be published
Member of Math club, spearheaded a webinar with Associate Professor in Math and current students
Debate team Captain
7 AP classes (of the 9 offered at their school)
SAT scores at the 75th percentile of the graduating class
Which student would be more competitive?
Student B’s profile stands out more because of its more distinctive experiences. Although A and B both had strong grades and potentially competitive testing, B showed more intellectual curiosity by engaging with the publishing process, planning innovative events, and founding a club. Student B is focused on STEM and social sciences and his other main activities support that focus. B also has more leadership across the board.
Approaching your focus
In your first year of high school, explore various opportunities so you can choose what to focus on later. During the summer, think about what leadership roles you want to take on. As a sophomore, you should still explore your options so that, by junior year, you can invest your time in developing the interests that come to define your high school experience. Your senior year plan should show advanced engagement toward your unique intellectual angle. For a more detailed timeline check out this article on college planning.
While some colleges require first-year applicants to apply to a specific major/program, many do not require students to declare a major until sophomore year. Do not feel tied to the potential major you develop before college. Admissions officers will not penalize a student for developing new interests.
On your journey towards building a stand-out candidacy, approach new opportunities like adventures. Genuine excitement can fuel your creativity. These practices help admissions officers argue in favor of the intangibles of an applicant. Your readers will determine if you are motivated by grades or act from a position of a lifelong love of learning.