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Think You Need to Be “Well-Rounded” To Get Into College? You Don’t

Have you heard that colleges want “well-rounded students?” Do you feel like you won’t get accepted to college unless you play an instrument, star in your school play, captain a sports team, volunteer for hundreds of hours, and serve as student body president?

Well, here’s the truth: That’s a myth.

When it comes to extracurricular activities, colleges prefer quality over quantity. In this article, we’ll give you the real scoop on what colleges want when it comes to extracurricular participation—plus practical tips to help you make the right impression.

Why “Well-Rounded” Isn’t What Colleges Want

Colleges are searching for a diverse student body. They want students with different talents and interests who will make varying contributions to campus.

When building a freshman class, colleges aren’t looking to accept hundreds of students who are identically well-rounded. They’re hoping to find students with unique skills and specialties.

Colleges want well-rounded classes, not well-rounded students.

But you don’t have to take it from us. Here’s what a few top colleges have to say on the subject:

  • “You [should] demonstrate a deep commitment to and genuine appreciation for what you spend your time doing. The joy you take in the pursuits that really matter to you – rather than a resume padded with a long list of activities – will strengthen your candidacy.” –Yale’s advice on Activities
  • “When we evaluate an applicant’s activity list, we’re not looking for a specific number of involvements or even specific types.  We are much more interested in seeing an applicant follow their passions and show dedication over time to a few specific involvements rather than spreading themselves too thin.” –USC Admissions Blog
  • “We are looking for students who will contribute their talents, interests, perspectives, and distinct voices to our community… We are more interested in your focus on a few activities over time (such as work, care for parents and siblings, service, or athletics), rather than membership in a long list of clubs—although we understand that some students can balance an assortment of activities.” –Swarthmore College, “What We Look for in a Swattie”
  • “You’re joining a team. And because we’re recruiting a team of people who will work together, we want a variety of strengths and talents that, together, will form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. So, not every talented student needs to be talented in the same way.” – UNC-Chapel Hill, “Who We Want”

Think of a college’s student body as a puzzle, with each student representing a uniquely important piece. You’re the only one with your exact talents and interests, so demonstrate and deepen those instead of participating in many activities at a shallow level.

No matter how many times you’ve heard that colleges want well-rounded students, it simply isn’t true. Colleges want to develop a well-rounded class comprised of students with varying interests and talents.

4 Steps to Quality Extracurricular Participation

1. Be true to yourself.
Your extracurricular activities should show colleges where your passions lie, so pursue enjoyable activities that genuinely interest you.

If you absolutely love science, participate in activities like the Science Olympiad, Physics Club, and/or Robotics Team. You can also attend science-related summer camps, develop your own research and experiments, and job shadow someone in a science career that interests you.

If reading and writing are your cup of tea, work on your school’s literary magazine, join the Creative Writing Club, write your own novel or short story collection, and start a book club.

Not sure what you’re interested in? Experiment with a few different types of activities, then narrow it down to your top 3-4. You don’t have to limit yourself to just one category or area of interest, but don’t spread yourself too thin.

Remember that you’re not trying to find the most impressive activities or check every box. What do you love? What “makes you tick?” Once you’ve figured that out, pursue it.

2. Commit!

We mentioned above that it’s fine to experiment with several different activities at first. But at some point, you need to narrow your focus to 3-5 activities that you especially enjoy.

Once you’ve narrowed your focus, commit. Colleges like to see dedication and commitment to a few key activities over an extended period of time. It’s a definite plus if you can devote yourself to the same activities for most of your college career.

3. Take on leadership roles or otherwise add value.

Once you’ve committed to a few activities that interest you, try to take on leadership roles or otherwise add value in these areas.

Colleges don’t only want you to participate when you come to campus; they want you to contribute. Your extracurricular activities should demonstrate that you’ll use your interests and talents to make a difference on campus. The best way to show you’ll make a difference in the future is to make a difference right now.

Become a club officer, plan a special event, run a committee, or generate a new idea. Or if a club doesn’t exist that you’d love to join, start it yourself! Whatever you do, make sure that you contribute in a meaningful way. Keep track of your contributions so you can mention them when you apply to colleges.

You might want to have an ongoing document that lists what activities you participated in, leadership roles you had, contributions you made, problems you solved or helped solve, etc. This will help you develop your activity summary when you apply to colleges, and it may even give you some great ideas for your college application essay(s).

4. Deepen and develop your interests over time.

Colleges also like to see growth over time. Each year, your interests and involvement should deepen or develop.

This can include strengthening your leadership role in an organization or becoming more involved (leading a committee, planning more events, recruiting others to join).

It may also include spending time on your own to further explore your interests or sharpen your skills. Take related college or online courses, job shadow or find internships, go to relevant summer camps, or check out books on the subject from your local library.

Colleges like curious, passionate students who take initiative. Make use of the resources and opportunities available to you and explore your interests on your own time. By doing so, you’ll indicate that you’re just the sort of student colleges want on their campuses.

The Takeaway

No matter how many times you’ve heard that colleges want well-rounded students, it simply isn’t true. Colleges want to develop a well-rounded class comprised of students with varying interests and talents.

That’s good news for you! Instead of pursuing a crazy number of extracurricular activities, figure out what you truly enjoy and participate in 3-5 related activities.

Once you’ve found your favorite activities, commit for an extended period of time. Contribute in meaningful ways and/or take on leadership roles. Over time, deepen and develop your interests, talents, and involvement.

If you follow these steps, colleges will see that you’ll bring your unique passions and skills to campus. They’ll recognize that you’re likely to make meaningful contributions to the campus community. By doing so, you’ll strengthen your application and increase your chances of earning an acceptance letter.

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Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.