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Do Colleges Want Well-Rounded Students?

What’s Covered:


When thinking about the college application you’re going to put together, you might be asking yourself the following questions: What is my application theme going to be? How do I want to come across as an applicant? Most importantly, how am I going to impress colleges? 


Many students hear that in order to impress colleges, you need to be well-rounded. Well, what does being well-rounded mean, and is it true that well-rounded students have better chances in the college admissions process? Keep reading to discover what it means to be a well-rounded applicant and how that may not be the key to success in the college admissions process. 


What Does It Mean To Be “Well Rounded”? 


When you think of a “well rounded” student, you often think of a student who is involved in a lot of different activities and is pretty good at all of them. For example, this is a student who has A’s in both humanities and STEM, is a varsity soccer player, a flutist in the city’s audition-based youth orchestra, and the student class secretary. 


The thing about this student is that they’re good at many different activities, but they’re not deeply involved in any of them. They don’t have any specialized interests nor have they achieved very high proficiency in any activity. In other words, they’re successful, but they’re not the best at many activities or academic subjects. 


Is this what colleges are looking for? Well, colleges are looking for students who are looking to be successful. Indeed, well-rounded students tend to be good at the things that they try, so they are likely to be successful in college. However, what many students fail to realize is that there are many well-rounded students who apply to college. So, a well-rounded profile alone will not make you stand out in the college admissions process. 


Four Tiers of Extracurricular Activities


Rather than being a well-rounded student who is good at many things, you might consider trying to excel and go all-in on some extracurricular activities that you are truly passionate about. There are four tiers of extracurricular activities that you can pursue in high school. The activities that are likely to make you stand out are Tiers 1 and 2, whereas the well-rounded students are likely to have activities in Tiers 3 and 4. 


Let’s explain these tiers in a little more detail.


We’ll start with the Tier 4 activities. These are the extracurriculars where you were a participating member, and didn’t hold a leadership position. For example, playing in the school orchestra, volunteering at an animal shelter, or joining Spanish Club is a Tier 4 activity. You should absolutely include these in your college application as they showcase your interests to an admissions committee, but they won’t be the most impressive part of your application. 


Tier 3 activities involve more effort and dedication than Tier 4 activities. Tier 3 activities are any extracurriculars where you held some sort of honor or leadership position. Examples include placing at a Debate Tournament, being the Treasurer of a school club, or being a varsity athlete. These are definitely accomplishments worth showcasing; however, they are still pretty common among college applicants.


Tier 2 activities are where most applicants stand out from the rest. These are the impressive extracurricular accomplishments that you’ve done, like being class president, leading a fundraising effort that made $10,000, or making the all-state orchestra. These are the accomplishments that show dedication and leadership. For most students, this is the peak of their extracurricular accomplishments. Two or three of these activities on your college application are very likely to impress an admissions committee.


Finally, there are Tier 1 Activities. These are truly extraordinary accomplishments, and for this reason, they are rare in college applicants. These are the types of activities that very few students can accomplish, like winning the national Mock Trial competition, gaining admission to a prestigious summer program, or being the #3 tennis player in the state. If you can get a Tier 1 activity on your resume, you will definitely gain the attention of admissions committees.


This is just a brief overview of the Four Tiers of extracurricular activities. If you want to go into these in more detail, here is our official breakdown of the four tiers of extracurricular activities.


What are the Different Types of Extracurricular Profiles?


Another way to look at this is to take a look at your entire extracurricular profile and to figure out what type of profile you are presenting to colleges. There’s the depth profile, the breadth profile, and–the ideal–the contrast profile. 


Depth Profile


To start, if you can fill in the blanks on any of the following statements, you likely have a depth profile: 


“I’ve always wanted to be a _______”

“I spend twenty hours per week on _______”

“I already receive a lot of attention for my talent in _____”. 


In other words, you are likely driven by a strong passion or talent that lets you thrive in a particular extracurricular activity. You’ve been focusing on one field of interest for years, and 50-70% of your extracurricular profile is dedicated to this field. Hopefully, you have made some intense accomplishments in this field, like winning a competition, that will bump this interest into a Tier 1-2 extracurricular. 


These profiles carry both high risk and high reward. The reward comes from the fact that universities want students who specialize in particular areas of focus. They want passionate students who are going to excel in their field. At the same time, you run the risk of being in a situation where there are other applicants to the same college with a better profile in the same area of focus. 


Specifically, if you have a more common depth profile (e.g. Asian American students with a STEM focus), you run the risk of being typecast by admissions officers as someone who lacks personality, or is being pressured into a field by their parents. 


Breadth Profile


Contrastingly, there is the breadth profile, which most closely resembles the profile of a well-rounded student. These are students who are pursuing activities in a variety of different fields. Unfortunately, these profiles often make students seem unfocused or scattered. 


Hopefully, if you have a breadth profile, you can find a way to make some cohesive links between all of your extracurricular involvement. Maybe you can find multiple mini-themes in all of your activities, linking at least a few of them together. Hopefully, your breadth of extracurricular activities revolves around one or two cross-functional skills. For example, it’s completely normal to be in five different clubs if you’re acting as the Finance Director for all of them. This way, you are grouping your extracurriculars around one central theme. 


Overall, breadth profiles are good for applying outside of the top 100 colleges, but they’re unlikely to impress on merit scholarship applications and college applications to the elite schools. While a student may need to be in the top 5-10% of depth profiles to have a shot at a top-tier college, they need to be in the top 1-2% of breadth profiles to achieve the same kind of college admissions success.


Contrast Profile


While the depth profile is certainly preferred to the breadth profile, the real ideal is a Contrast Profile. This kind of profile shows depth in two diversified thematic areas, showing juxtapositional depth. For example, a student interested in engineering and separately in distance running can create a strong contrast profile. Ideally, these students have at least one crossover activity that integrates these two seemingly unrelated thematic areas. In the example above, the student could pursue research into wearable technologies for runners. 


Overall, the Contrast Profile has more benefits than negatives. These students have less chance of being stereotyped as having a robotic personality because they are pursuing diverse interests. These students also get two chances to have the right kind of depth to fill a slot in a college class instead of one. Now, these students are less likely to be the absolute best candidate for each of their themes, but overall, this profile still stands out the most. 


Wrapping It Up


Overall, having a well-rounded profile may not be the way to go in order to impress colleges. With so many well-rounded students, it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd. 


Ideally, if you’re a student with multiple interests, you should try and cultivate two of your favorite fields to a greater level. If you can show mastery and success in two different types of activities, you will achieve the juxtapositional depth that can help you stand out in college admissions.


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Sadhvi Mathur
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Sadhvi is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored in Economics and Media Studies. Having applied to over 8 universities, each with different application platforms and requirements, she is eager to share her knowledge now that her application process is over. Other than writing, Sadhvi's interests include dancing, playing the piano, and trying not to burn her apartment down when she cooks!