As higher education becomes more accessible, colleges are becoming more selective. Since 1988, universities have had a substantial decrease in admissions rates: Columbia went from 65% to less than 7%, Yale admissions rates decreased by 10%. At the same time, college enrollment has grown, experiencing a 31.6% increase from 1988 to 2015 with national universities. As a result, students face a tight competition for their own coveted letter of acceptance. What does this mean for today’s high school students? Nothing good. They are now forced to pile on more extracurriculars and take more AP classes, all the while being expected to succeed in them. High school students are facing pressure from all sides to be “well-rounded.” They’re expected to be exceptional in every field. What many don’t realize is that being well-rounded is a myth. With so many activities taking up their schedules, no student has time to be truly great at any activity. Many students have to settle for being good enough, for mediocrity. Unfortunately for these students, selective universities don’t want well-rounded students. Well-rounded students are the norm now. Everyone is being told to join more clubs, take more AP classes, play more sports. Everyone wants to get into a selective university. Universities realize this; they have their pick of the litter with well-rounded students.
What selective universities do want are unique individuals. They want passionate students who’ll change the world. The whole purpose of higher education is so that students can one day use their education to solve real world problems. When colleges look at applications, they are looking for the students who are going to make a difference. There’s no real use in joining a club or sport solely because it’ll look good on your application. Colleges are looking for activities that’ll reflect the student’s personality. They don’t want the jack of all trades, well-rounded student because that student isn’t unique. For every student who joins clubs and takes AP classes to improve their application, there’s another student who participates in the clubs and classes that they’re passionate about. Universities ask about extracurricular activities because they want to know how students spend their time outside of school. They’re looking for the students with leadership potential, the students who dedicate their limited free time to their passions.
Even the universities who seem to only accept academic geniuses don’t want well-rounded students. Harvard University has always been the university to get into for years. An acceptance to Harvard is the golden ticket to a successful life. Unfortunately for some, even Harvard wants the students who have spent their high school years on activities they’re passionate about. They want students who will change the world. These types of students aren’t typically the traditional well-rounded student. Helen Vendler, a former member of the Harvard Faculty Standing Committee on Admissions, wrote a thought-provoking essay reminding others of the value of students with a passion for the humanities. What this shows is that even if you’re a student who’s not passionate about traditional academics and STEM subjects, you can still be accepted into a selective university. It’s less about what you’re passionate about, but more about the fact that you are passionate about something.
“It remains for us to identify them when they apply—to make sure they can do well enough to gain a degree, yes, but not to expect them to be well-rounded, or to become leaders… one can’t quite picture Baudelaire pursuing public service, or Mozart spending time perfecting his mathematics. We need to be deeply attracted by the one-sided as well as the many-sided.”
A word of advice from one student to any reading this article: There is no magic formula to college admissions. Looking at the vast diversity of applications that are accepted into selective colleges, I’ve realized this. I regret spending my first two years of high school joining clubs and classes only because I thought it’d help with college applications. Although I am now actually passionate about those clubs and classes, I wasn’t my freshman and sophomore year. I urge you to take a good look at every activity you’re part of and to decide whether or not all the hours spent on it are worth adding an extra line on your college application. Remember that spending time on activities you’re passionate about, in high school and on, will have a far bigger impact on your life than what universities you’re accepted into.
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be a guide for college admissions. It is instead one high school student’s views on college admissions, specifically the admissions of selective universities, based on research and advice from teachers, counselors, and fellow students who were accepted into selective universities.