Why “Niche” is the new “Well-Rounded” in College Admissions
By Tonya DuBois
If you are a 40-something parent, as I am, you will recall how important it was to be “well-rounded” when you applied to college. We were involved in everything imaginable from athletics, to the arts, to community service, all vying for the longest, most diverse, and most impressive extra-curricular resume. Well, times have changed.
Now, as you usher your teenager through high school and ultimately toward the college admission process, the focus is different. “How can my child prove to the admission office that she is TRULY passionate about this one thing? I need them to know that she’s not just putting it on her resume for the sake of it, but that it really means something to her.”
Before I answer that question….First, why the change in the first place? Being well-rounded was not a good predictor of which roles the student would fill once on campus. Would the band have a sax player, or would this particular sax-playing athlete prefer to play a sport when he got to campus? Since he did both in high school, how would the college admission officer know? Knowing that they are admitting an expert rower, or dancer, or oboe player, rather that someone who COULD do those things, helps them build a well-rounded class, which is always the goal.
What are steps you can take to achieve the desired “niche” status? If your child has a true passion and talent for a specific activity/subject matter, here’s what to do….
- Make sure that the course work reflects the student’s passion. If a student wants to major in Japanese studies, spent a year on an exchange program in Japan, and has a Japanese garden at home, but is taking Spanish in school, then he may not be sending the right message. One small shift – taking Japanese language – either in school or out – would make all the difference in sending a clear message about this student’s strong desire to immerse himself in understanding the Japanese culture. Just focusing on the extra-curricular list, to illustrate the student’s passion is a mistake.
- Have the student’s interest shine through in the extra-curricular resume. If the student is framing herself as an outstanding swimmer, then she should be on the school’s team for all 4 years (hopefully as Captain by Senior year), she is likely involved in a competitive team outside of school, she should get herself certified as a life guard, volunteer to teach children’s swim lessons and/or water safety, maybe even get SCUBA certified. This tells the right story! The applicant’s school activities, recreational activities, part-time job, and community service experience should all align whenever possible.
- Make the right contacts when you visit the college campus. If the student is a fantastic artist, he should make an appointment with the appropriate department head when scheduling the campus tour. He should bring a portfolio with him that showcases his work across several different mediums. (Leaving an electronic portfolio behind on a memory stick would be great too!) Be sure your teenager has done all the necessary research about the college’s program before this meeting, and has created a list of detailed questions to ask. By taking this extra step during your campus visit, not only is the student showcasing his talents, but he is also demonstrating real interest in their specific program, which is also very important (and a topic for another day). And, please, be sure a thank you note gets sent after the visit.
Please understand, there is still plenty of room in a freshman class for that student who is President of the student government, plays the violin, works at Habitat for Humanity every weekend, is the captain of the cheerleading squad, and is on the award-winning Math Team. But, if your students had a special skill or talent, be sure it is very clear to the reader of the application – after all, the reader wants to get to know the applicant, not read a superficial list of activities, right?
My parting thought is always the same – no student should ever do something (or not do something) simply for the sake of the college application. But, when the talents and interests and dedication align and the students are truly doing what makes their heart sing, then all of these things happen organically. Their course work, extra-curriculars, jobs, volunteer work all fit together beautifully and reflect their authentic self. Now, you just have to get them to brag about it a little!