As a youth pastor, I am constantly bumping up against various challenges. One of those challenges is the fact that when it comes to student involvement, I am forever competing against other extra-curricular activities, such as sports teams, student council, band, orchestra, choir, rotary club, even other youth groups and church functions. As I’ve discussed this with parents and other youth pastors, I’ve realized that teenagers today are busier than any of the previous generations were.
I think a lot of this stems from a strong desire (by both teens and their parents) to succeed. Parents want their kids to have every opportunity in life, and so they sign them up for as many things as possible. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a well-intentioned and noble pursuit. The problem is that it conditions students to wrongly think that just because they are being busy they are also being effective. Not only this, but we are actually doing our students a disservice when we involve them in as many things as possible. Why? Because, believe it or not, most colleges are NOT looking for well-rounded students.
Wha? Yep, that’s right. I know this from personal experience. One of the first classes I took as a college freshmen shocked my system when my professor told me not to work on my weaknesses. She said that a jack-of-all-trades is a master of none. So, rather than wasting time trying to be good at everything, I ought to just focus on becoming great at one or two things. And when I stopped to think about it, it made sense. Think of the greatest people in history. They weren’t great at everything. Rather, they were amazing at the one area in which they changed history.
“Well, that’s your personal experience,” you might say. “That isn’t generally true.” If you don’t believe me, consider the voices of some others who are more of an authority on this issue than I am.
In the book, Raising Them Right, Carol Kuykendall writes about gathering information to help her sons and daughters choose a college, “We learned that most colleges don’t insist on well-rounded students; they prefer well-rounded classes made up of lopsided students who excel in one or two areas.” Similarly, licensed counselor, Carla Palffy, writes about a 2010 survey of independent college consultants entitled “Top Ten Strengths and Experiences Colleges Look for in High School Students.” This survey revealed that colleges are looking for “passionate involvement in a few activities, demonstrating leadership and initiative. Depth, not breadth, of experience is most important.” Instead of looking for students who have sampled the entire buffet of high school activities, colleges want “special talents or experiences that will contribute to an interesting and well-rounded student body.”
Rachel Toor is a former admissions officer at Duke University. In her book, Admissions Confidential, Toors writes about how she would see tons of applications from bright, well-rounded kids. However, since these students failed to stand out from the crowd, they were less likely to be accepted.
Most convincingly (at least to me) is an article from the Washington Post in which a dozen Deans/Directors of Admissions from colleges and universities were asked the question, “Do colleges want well-rounded students or those with a passion?” Though their answers were by no means unanimous, there was definitely a strong inclination toward students who display a passion over well-roundedness. Here are some of their responses:
“You can tell when a student has joined 15 clubs and organizations in high school just to make the extra curricular page of the college application look long. Colleges are more interested in the students passion, the authenticity of the students involvement, and the impact they’ve had in their communities, teams, or organizations. Sometimes that means they’ve only done 1 or 2 things, but they’ve been involved in a way that has fundamentally impacted those organizations.”
– Angel B. Perez, Director of Admission at Pitzer College, CA
“We are always suspicious of students with laundry lists of extracurricular activities because it suggests that the student is not developing an in-depth engagement with any one activity. Also, it suggests a level of frenetic busy-ness that may be more about building a college resume than about genuine interest on the part of the student.”
– Eileen Brangan Mell, Director of Public Relations at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MA
“We still don’t want to see lengthy resumes that are all over the map… We want to see passion.”
– Erika Vardaro, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Bentley University, MA
Now, this does not mean that teens have to find their passion and vocation in high school, or that colleges won’t accept kids who are still trying out different interests (some colleges want both types of students). But it does mean that busy-ness for busy-ness’ sake can cause admissions teams to question the commitment and effectiveness of an applicant.
Either way, it’s something to think about.