The Well-Rounded Ones
“Universities want well-rounded students.” This fatal assumption leads 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 cohort, which cannot be achieved by accepting students who are each moderately interested in a wide array of general 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. The spiky candidates that we mention in Chapter 3 are more desirable than students who present themselves as well-rounded, while failing to present their spikes in a focused way.
This chapter is not meant to encourage you to actively exclude some activities from your application. Rather, we encourage applicants to show off spikes in areas of interest or particular skills on their applications. 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 Harvard for a PhD in English literature.
Amy tried to impress the program by writing a personal statement about how she has been an avid reader since she was a child. She mentions a wide range of her favorite authors, who come from different time periods, cultures, and schools. Then, she writes that her favorite author is Shakespeare and that she would like to continue studying Shakespeare in graduate school.
Amy has not properly researched Harvard’s program, and does not understand that admissions officers take it for granted that anyone applying for a PhD in literature will have an appreciation for Shakespeare, and will love to read. By focusing on such broad interests, Amy thinks she is demonstrating her flexibility and enthusiasm. Instead, admissions officers will dismiss her application because she has not proven herself to have specific interests in the program.
Jason is applying for the same degree, and writes his personal statement about how his award-winning undergraduate thesis, an in-depth study of French epistolary novels, has awakened a broader interest in European cross-genre novels. Jason will point to several faculty members who have published on the subject, and will demonstrate a specific interest in a literary field while also showing his capacity to grow in the program. His personal statement shows that he is committed to a particular field, but also that within that specific interest he will have room to explore new theories and texts.
Admissions officers favor and remember applicants who can fill specific niches within the next class. By displaying yourself as the school’s next potential great researcher or scholar in a specific field, you will make your reader excited about how their program will contribute to your education and new findings. Therefore, be sure to advertise yourself as a specialist in the areas where you have excelled and invested yourself in the most throughout your life. Show off your spikiness!
While showing off your spikiness on an application is easier if you have accolades in a specific field, it is not necessary to be the absolute best at something to make your application alluringly spiky to admissions officers. You can sharpen your application’s “spike” simply by demonstrating vigorous and sustained interest in a given area. Virtually any passion related to your field 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.
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!