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Posted at 7:15 AM ET, 11/ 3/2009

Question 3: Do colleges want well-rounded students or those with a passion?

By Valerie Strauss

Angel B. Perez
Director of Admission
Pitzer College, CA

Many students feel that they have to compile a very long list of activities in order to get into college, but as I read applications, I look for trends and more importantly, passion. You can tell when a student has joined 15 clubs and organizations in high school just to make the extra curricular page of the college application look long. Colleges are more interested in the students passion, the authenticity of the students involvement, and the impact they’ve had in their communities, teams, or organizations. Sometimes that means they’ve only done 1 or 2 things, but they’ve been involved in a way that has fundamentally impacted those organizations. That to me, is more important than being involved in 20 clubs and not having impacted any.

Eileen Brangan Mell
Director of Public Relations
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MA

We are always suspicious of students with laundry lists of extracurricular activities because it suggests that the student is not developing an in-depth engagement with any one activity. Also, it suggests a level of frenetic busy-ness that may be more about building a college resume than about genuine interests on the part of the student. That said, we do encourage exploration on the part of young people and recognize that student interests can change rapidly. At a recent national conference, I heard the college counselor at a highly respected private school bemoaning the fact that many students squander their high school years "majoring in College X." In other words, students get so caught up in making a good impression, that they lose sight of the real goal, which is to develop their talents and their interests and to have fun. Who knows, with an attitude like that, they may even get admitted to college.

Henry Broaddus
Dean of admission
College of William & Mary, VA

Although it’s generally true that we’d rather see substantive achievements in fewer activities than broad involvements in many, there’s still room at even the most selective places for students who have not found their passion. Sometimes it’s refreshing to see the student who, for example, gave up the violin he had been playing for years, because he wanted the time to try soccer. Continuity is not a virtue unto itself. Scattered evidence of a curious mind can be more impressive than singular achievements from routinized commitments.

Jerome A. Lucido
Vice Provost for Enrollment Policy and Management
Executive Director, Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice
University of Southern California

There simply is no mold for "what admission directors are looking for." Some students are highly focused; others are exploring every day of theirlives. We want both kinds of students. It is true that one can demonstrate commitment and achievement by dedicating oneself to a singular activity, butthis is only one thing that may be attractive to an admission committee.The important thing is to design your activities to develop and test your interests, not to please a distant admission official. Yes, we believe this!

Christine Mica
Dean of University Admissions
The Catholic University of America, Washington D.C.

Yes, it is still true our admission office looks for students who dedicate themselves in an area like service, leadership (church, fundraising, having a job, etc) and are able to make a noticeable difference (in terms of their own thinking or in terms of helping others). A “laundry list” of activities just to boost the resume is not what we are looking for.

Erika Vardaro
Director of Undergraduate Admission
Bentley University, MA

We still don’t want to see lengthy resumes that are all over the map. Passion may be a strong word because there are some kids who aren’t “passionate,” but instead have a sincere interest in something. We want to see commitment.

Ken Huus
Dean of Admissions
Sweet Briar College, VA

Students who have resumes all over the map either are doing those activities just to pad a resume or are unable to commit to anything for a period of time. Students who have a demonstrated passion for something are communicating through their actions an ability to commit and a level of self-confidence ("This is who I am, take it or leave it."). Generally colleges view high school records as the foundation for how that student is going to behave on our campus - if she demonstrates an ability to be a successful student, we believe she’ll be a good student in college; if she is committed to something throughout high school, we believe she’ll remain committed to that activity in college (or something similar); if she bounces from one thing to another without any direction, we believe she’ll bounce around without any direction in college (and this isn’t generally perceived as a good thing).

Donna Hoyt
Dean of Admission
Pace University, NY

Whether a student has a passion such as working for Habitat for Humanity for the past 4 years or working for 4 different organizations, there is no preference in that student based on essay topic. It’s about how they express their stand on the topic they chose because after all, it takes diversity in a student body to make a university what it is.

Luke Hodson
Director of Admissions Operations
Berea College, KY

In the end, we’re looking to offer admission to students who are the most likely to graduate. Although there’s merit in being well-rounded or having a variety of interests, there is something special about a student who has been focused and successful in one area. We would rather see someone who has made a significant contribution to one organization than a student who has joined a multitude of organizations without taking the time to be deeply involved in any of them.

Tony Bankston
Dean of Admissions
Illinois Wesleyan University

The way I describe this to families is like this: I’d rather see a student with four activities in which they hold some type of leadership position or more active type of role than a student who puts down eight activities and it just says "member" for each one. Students who have a passion for something are significantly more likely to make a more significant contribution to the campus community. They are not only more likely to get involved, but they are also more apt to bring new initiatives to campus or bring about improvements to existing clubs or programs. Passion is more likely to breed action.

David Lesesne
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid
Randolph-Macon College, VA

I think admissions directors do prefer depth over breadth, but that is not to the exclusion of students that do many things well. This issue often gets framed as the well-rounded kid vs. the angular kid. You certainly do see what I call “serial participators” who are in every club and organization to either get their picture in the yearbook the most times or perhaps stuff their resume for the college application. That superficial participation can’t be sustained in college and is not impressive. But applicants should not panic if they have not truly found their passion yet. College is not a bad place to find one’s passion. I am just as impressed by the student who is engaged in several activities, including holding a job, as I am a student who has a singular passion. The key is, are they a dedicated student who can balance their responsibilities and are they likely to take advantage of the transformative experiences and opportunities on my campus.
I hope you find the above responses helpful. Good luck with your story.

Lorne T. Robinson
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid
Macalester College, MN

Regarding activities, interests, and passions, I’d have to say that the "social engineering" part of my job in putting together an interesting incoming class each year involves gathering together people who are both specialists and generalists in their interests and activities. A "well-rounded class" is different than a class full of well-rounded people, so we definitely want people who have particularly strong passions.

At the same time, any well-rounded class at a highly selective college like Macalester will include a good number of people who just seem to be involved in everything . So, contrary to popular belief, I’d say there’s no one "right" pattern of activity that we’re looking for here. Bottom line advice for both issues above: be yourself and the colleges that are most likely the best "fit" will be the ones most likely to offer you admission.

By Valerie Strauss  | November 3, 2009; 7:15 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  College admissions  
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I asked this same question to an admissions officer at Harvard (where I didn't get in) over forty years ago when I was applying to colleges. His answer: We are looking for a well-rounded class which generally means we want to get individuals who stand out at something. My takeaway: Harvard wasn't really looking for well-rounded students.
That also seemed to be the message of Rachel Toor's book, "Admissions Confidential." Toor worked in the Duke admissions dept. for a couple of years and wrote that Duke got loads of bright well-rounded kids (BWRKs) apps. Those kids had trouble standing out from the pack and so were unlikely to be accepted without another hook.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | November 5, 2009 2:47 AM | Report abuse

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