Forget Everything You’ve Heard About Being a Well-Rounded Candidate

Adam Aleksic, Editor-in-Chief

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Everyone’s guilty of saying it.

I’ve heard guidance counselors, parents, and an endless parade of other students confidently repeat that, if you want to get into a top college, you need to show that you’re a “well-rounded candidate”.

It’s perhaps the most perpetuated and persistent myth about the college admissions process, and one that needs to be dispelled. In actuality, elite universities are looking for a well-rounded class, not well rounded students. They’d rather have specialized individuals who will go on to be experts in their field (thus bringing further prestige to those universities) than someone who doesn’t quite know what they want. It’s far worse to be a jack-of-all-trades than a master of just one.

That’s where the concept of “the spike” comes in. In college admissions jargon, this is used to refer to achievements in a particular discipline that make you stand out from the rest of the crowd. There’s nothing wrong with some versatility, but Ivy League-level schools are really looking for scholars extremely focused in a certain area.

Ideally, this would be backed up by a number of extracurriculars and test scores. For example, a competitive candidate with a spike in chemistry could have a few research positions, involvement in the school science club, high scores in related AP classes and subject tests, and maybe an authored paper.

Similarly, my spike was in linguistics: I’ve been running a blog on etymology for three years and have had my infographics featured in several newspapers, I’ve won a couple of essay contests writing about language, and I’ve consistently scored well in my rigorous course load of historical and language classes. Most importantly, I framed my application around that spike, writing my common app essay on how I encountered etymology and emphasizing my relevant extracurriculars. My college admissions officers saw all that and identified me as a good candidate to fill out their linguistics departments.

This strategy got me into Harvard and a few other top schools, and virtually everyone I’ve talked to at those institutions also had a spike. The kids admitted to the government programs had internships with senators, the kids who got in for economics had successful startups and nonprofits, the kids accepted for math were medalists in international competitions, and so on.

Meanwhile, I’ve watched applicants from my high school – some just as smart as I am, if not more so – get rejected from a laundry list of schools partly because they didn’t shape their submissions to those schools around a particular passion of theirs. Most, if not all of them, didn’t know that was something they should have done.

In addition to the misinformation, another major problem is that a lot of people try to pick extracurriculars they think will look good for colleges. What really looks good is finding something you love, devoting your energy to it, and expressing that in your essays and activities list. You’ll get to enjoy yourself instead of forcing anything – and some acceptance letters would be a nice bonus.

College application season is an insanely stressful time for any family, and hopefully this added knowledge will give you some reassurance about how the process really works. Good luck to the high school class of 2020 as they take on the mantle later this year!

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