Depth, not breadth, preferred in college applicants

A wealthy man paid a small fortune for a dog advertised as the best-trained animal in the world. Indeed this dog had been taught to speak English, juggle, dance and balance large objects on his nose. One night while his new master was sleeping, the dog stood quietly by and watched two burglars break in and take away his owner's valuables. When the master awoke the next morning and surmised what had happened, he angrily asked the dog why he hadn't barked. "Bark?" said the dog. "Gee, I'm not very good at barking."

There is a common misconception that college admissions departments are seeking multi-talented Renaissance students. In the same way that it's better to own a dog who is good at one or two things, such as giving companionship and acting as a watchdog, colleges prefer students who are good in one or two areas. Admissions officers generally look for depth, not breadth in applicants' extracurricular interests and talents. There are several reasons for this and naturally there are also exceptions.

In an institution of thousands of students it's not necessary, or possible, for each individual to do everything. In this age of increased specialization, time and academic schedules make participation in more than a few extracurricular activities very difficult. Therefore admissions departments work like baseball coaches finding players for each position. Some students will be specialists in the arts, some in theater, some in music, some in a particular sport. All must be good students and citizens, but very few are excellent at everything.

Compelling, competitive candidates will show passion in their schoolwork and in their areas of special interest or talent (SIT), including sports. The candidate should communicate SIT clearly to the school through the application. The savvy applicant will carefully observe the recommendations of the admissions departments being applied to. Many will accept supplemental admissions materials that reflect an applicant's SIT. These might include a CD or DVD demonstrating a talent, an additional letter of recommendation from a coach or employer, or a short essay by the student discussing the SIT.

Another way for the applicant to convey special interests or talents to an admissions department is indirectly through meetings or correspondence with coaches or teachers who work in the appropriate discipline at the college. This serves the dual purpose of introducing the student's abilities to someone who might advocate for them in the admissions process while also allowing the student to become more familiar with the school's programs and the faculty or coaching staff.

College acceptance is still largely based on academic talent. There are some relatively average students that gain admissions to highly competitive colleges based on their SIT, but these individuals are exceptionally talented in their specialty. An applicant who is a relatively inactive or average member of several school clubs, teams, or organizations will generally not find these activities dramatically altering their likelihood of acceptance at competitive colleges. What admissions offices prefer is real dedication in one or two areas beyond academics. They like to see that a student is undertaking a SIT as a passionate participant who is making a significant time and effort commitment. Leadership roles, hard work, and achievement in the SIT can make a difference in the acceptance process. Even in those cases when a student chooses not to continue pursuing a particular SIT in college, admissions officers know that the previously demonstrated passion will be transferred to the student's new interest.

Colleges strive to build interesting, diverse student bodies. Therefore the extracurricular activities of the students are important to enriching the life of the college community. Most colleges seek specialists to fill the many different niches in school life. The exception is at some smaller colleges where fewer bodies mean a multi-talented student might be needed to fill up several openings on teams, clubs, and in the arts. The true Renaissance applicant may find some strategic advantage in applying to such schools.

It sometimes makes sense to apply to schools where a particular talent is in demand. Some colleges are known for their performing arts, a particular sport, a radio station or newspaper. Such schools often actively seek applicants for these specialties. Admissions offices will gladly enumerate the extracurricular talents they seek, if asked. Keep in mind that schools with particularly strong specialties will likely require that the applicant have great talent. Mere desire won't be enough and less talented applicants might be better pursuing their interest elsewhere. It's extremely hard to make the Notre Dame football team's starting line-up, but a reasonably good player can normally get off the bench at many Division Three schools with less competitive teams.

Michael Wilner is the founder and principal of Wilner Education, an international educational planning practice, based in Putney, Vermont, specializing in secondary school and college placement. You can contact Wilner with questions on this or any other college or secondary school admission topic at


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