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Should High School Students Be Well-Rounded or Specialized?

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Much of the classic conception of the ideal college application centers around the idea of a “well-rounded” student. The archetypal well-rounded student is strong in every subject, class president, team captain, thespian, and debate whiz – a well-rounded student, as the name implies, is strong in many areas, but hasn’t devoted the entirety of their time and energy to any single pursuit. For decades, common knowledge has stated that being a well-rounded student is the key to gaining admission to elite colleges. But in an era where admissions rates are lower than ever and it seems impossible to know exactly what colleges are looking for in students, does the notion of a well-rounded student still hold water?

The answer? Both yes and no. An idea is gaining prevalence in the admissions world of a “specialized”, “angular”, or “sharp point” student – someone who focuses on a specific subject, activity, or career path and whose extracurricular activities, coursework, essays, and letters of recommendation are all oriented in one direction. Debate is beginning to arise about whether it’s better to be a strong student in all areas, without one clear focus, or to completely dedicate yourself to one area. 

How “Specialization” Factors into the Admissions Process

As admissions become increasingly competitive, colleges receive countless applications from students who are generally strong. However, good grades, solid extracurriculars, and well-written essays aren’t enough to guarantee admission anymore; more and more, colleges are looking for a “hook”, or some distinct aspect of a student’s application that satisfies a need for the university. Hooks can include being a national athlete or international award-winning musician; often, “hooked” students have devoted an enormous amount of time and energy into developing their specific skill. Each student is categorized in the admissions review process according to their hook or lack thereof. Consequently, well-rounded students, who have not focused on developing any specific area, are placed into the largest group. Because adcoms don’t compare you to the entire applicant pool, but rather the other applicants in your specific group, “unhooked” applicants have the highest number of students to compete against for a limited number of spots.

A common counter to the concept of a “well-rounded student” is the that of a “well-rounded class”: a group of students whose individual interests and specialized accomplishments culminate in a class that, when considered as a whole, excels in nearly every academic, extracurricular, and athletic pursuit. The idea of a well-rounded class is beginning to replace that of the well-rounded student in discussions about admissions as colleges begin to seek specialization with increasing frequency. 

The Danger of “Over-Specializing”

Colleges and universities value students with specific skill sets. Despite that, it is necessary for students to be competitive in all regards, not just the realm they’ve chosen to focus on; essentially, everyone needs to be well-rounded to some extent. Even a student who demonstrates exceptional ability or focus in one area can’t allow that focus to compromise the quality of their performance in other areas. For example, a student extremely gifted in STEM subjects who has scored perfectly on tests and taken accelerated courses programs still must demonstrate significant aptitude in reading and writing.

Additionally, applicants should demonstrate proficiency not only in a diverse array of subjects, but also in the diverse aspects of an application. For example, consider again the hypothetical student with extremely challenging coursework in STEM subjects and flawless test scores. While such success in academics will doubtless be advantageous, focusing on only one aspect of an application (like academics) can be disastrous. In addition to schoolwork and testing, the student should be involved in extracurriculars, especially those related to their field of interest, develop close relationships with teachers in order to ensure strong letters of recommendation, and write stellar essays. Strength in one area, be it academics, extracurriculars, or essays, cannot guarantee admission on its own. 

The Importance of Being Well-Rounded

As admissions becomes increasingly competitive and acceptance rates plummet, students who set themselves apart by “specializing” their applications cut through the noise of innumerable other applicants. However, success for these students is only possible if they also demonstrate universal strength and competence. You can’t be a competitive specialized applicant without first being well-rounded.

Again, well-roundedness can be considered in two ways: a student should both perform well in a variety of subjects, and develop each aspect of their application fully without neglecting any in favor of another. While applicants are not expected to be equally strong in all areas, colleges usually expect students to take four years of science, math, social studies, and English, even if four years of each subject is not required for graduation. Additionally, students should devote significant time to each component of an application, including academics, extracurriculars, essays, and recommendations. Even if you know your essays will be superb, you can’t allow your grades to slip by spending all your time perfecting your essays; conversely, don’t wait until the last second to start your essays because you’ve been busy with school. A huge part of being successful in all areas, especially in senior year, is proper time management!

Making Your Application Specialized

Once you’ve established a baseline level of proficiency across the board, you can consider specialization. If there’s an area you have a special interest in or passion for, seek to develop your involvement in that area to the furthest degree possible. Seek out relevant clubs at your school, summer internships, or volunteer opportunities, and take related courses at your high school or a local college. Once you’ve devoted yourself to a pursuit, work on expressing it clearly and effectively in your applications. If you’re not sure how to showcase a specific skill or talent in your college apps, check out our blog post on how to create a cohesive application.

Like many students, you may have at one point asked yourself, “is it better to be well-rounded, or specialized?” The truth is, to have the best shot at getting into your top choice colleges, you need to be both.


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.