“Colleges want well-rounded students.” This fatal myth leads college applicants to rejection every year. While this misconception makes intuitive sense, the truth is that admissions officers are trying to put together a well-rounded class. This cannot be achieved by accepting students who are each moderately interested in a wide array of fields. In fact, the best way for a university to assemble a class that excels in all areas is to accept many students who each excel in only one or two disciplines. We refer to these specialist students as “spiky” due to their sharp “spikes” of distinction in one or two areas. Spiky students are more desirable applicants than students who present themselves as well-rounded while failing to present their spikes in a focused way.
This article was not written to encourage you to actively exclude some activities from your application. Rather, we encourage applicants to show off spikes in interest or particular skills on their applications, such as passion for and experience in research, or the ability to design websites. This is because (1) spiky applications are memorable, (2) spiky applicants are more likely to be successful in their area of specialty, and (3) it is easier for admissions officers to see how spiky applicants will fit into the class. To show you what we mean, consider an applicant named Amy who is applying to Stanford through the Common App.
Beating the Myth: Becoming Spikey
Amy tried to impress Stanford by cramming all of her interests into her application and showing the admissions committee that she can do it all, from being an active member of Habitat for Humanity, to participating occasionally in science fairs, to having earned a few medals as a member of her school’s cross country team. “If I show Stanford how involved and well-rounded I am, they will realize that I am perfect have no choice but to accept me!” thought Amy.
Meanwhile, an admissions officer named Melinda is in the middle of reading hundreds of applications and has started assessing Amy’s. Melinda rubs her tired eyes and yawns at Amy’s application as she gets ready to throw it in the rejection pile with the rest of the flat applications. While Amy’s achievements in a wide range of activities are impressive, Melinda will probably not remember Amy for the rest of the selection process.
And why should she remember Amy? Amy’s philanthropic work with Habitat for Humanity is commendable, but it is forgettable compared to the way that another applicant presented her work by focusing on showcasing her 1,000 hours of community service. Amy’s participation in science fairs shows her passion for science, but when compared to another applicant’s four-year science project dedicated to developing a cheaper blood test, Amy’s scientific pursuits seem like just another one of her many hobbies. Finally, Amy’s cross country medals do little to help her stand out either, because another application is saturated with another applicant’s passion for running, focusing on his journey to a top-10 finish in the state competition.
In the end, Melinda forgets about well-rounded Amy and instead decides to offer admission to the other three applicants. The moral of Amy’s story is that competitive applicants will show passion, commitment, and skill in specific areas as opposed to weighing all of their skills equally on their application. Perhaps if Amy had sharpened her application by focusing more on her interest in politics and her four-year involvement with her city council, Melinda the admissions officer would have seen a more well-defined role for her in the upcoming class and may have offered her admission as well.
Admissions officers favor and remember applicants who can fill specific niches within the next class. By displaying yourself as the school’s next potential student body president, famous entrepreneur, robotics champion, or fencing champion, for example, you will make admissions officers much more interested in what you could contribute to a well-rounded class. Therefore, be sure to advertise yourself as a specialist in the areas where you have excelled and invested yourself the most throughout your life. Show off your spikiness!
Show off our Spikes!
While showing off your spikiness on an application is easier if you have accolades like an all-state athlete award, a national master chess title, or trophies from several debate tournaments, it is not necessary to be the absolute best at something to make your application alluringly spiky for admissions officers. You can sharpen your application’s “spike” simply by demonstrating vigorous and sustained interest in a given area. This can mean indicating strong interests in specific hobbies, sports, or subjects, but you can also choose to emphasize more general skills, such as leadership capabilities. Virtually any passion can give your application the spike that it needs, as long as you have the concrete evidence to validate it. After all, admissions officers are trying to build a well-rounded class.
Next time you are wondering whether you should fill that last spot on your activities section with your month-long participation in a slam poetry club, or an additional entry related to your deep interest in music, for example, choose the latter. It is always better to sharpen your spike than to waste space for the sole purpose of wanting to seem well-rounded. Be efficient with the space you are given on an application and put the spotlight on what you do best. Don’t fall flat—be spiky!
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