Winston Churchill once quipped that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Or did he? Ironically, the attribution of this quote may be a case of a lie whirling around the globe while the truth flails around in the dark, unable to locate his slacks; the origin of the quote is actually a matter debate. It may have been said by noted quote machine, Mark Twain, our third president and inventor of macaroni and cheese (seriously), Thomas Jefferson, or may just be an unattributed ancient Chinese proverb. Regardless, this witticism has relevance here, as one of the biggest myths in college admissions happens to also be one of the most widespread as the pervasive and hardened belief that colleges are looking for “well-rounded students” has made its way around the world many times over.

A well-rounded misunderstanding

Colleges are indeed worried about well-roundedness on campus. In putting together a freshman class they are looking for individuals who excel in sports, music, theater, entrepreneurship, volunteer work, foreign language, poetry, debate, etc. However, they aren’t looking for all of these talents to be wrapped-up in one human body. Rather, the core of their institutional desire is for collective well-roundedness to promote a healthy and diverse campus environment. In other words, they want an eclectic and balanced student body, comprised of individuals possessing one or two areas of high aptitude and zeal.

So, all of you ambitious 9th and 10th graders—please halt your plans to lug your bassoon, Latin textbook, and robotics kit to your JV baseball game so you can you cram in extra activities during any idle time in the dugout. Becoming the ultimate Renaissance man/woman is not actually a prerequisite for college admission.

How to approach freshman year

Now that the truth has at least put its pants on, let’s discuss how a typical freshman should approach planning their extracurricular pathway. To begin, it’s important to note that colleges, even Ivy and Ivy-caliber schools, do not expect you to be a finished product the moment you set foot in a high school. Sure, there are prodigies and savants out there who have been playing the cello since infancy or destined for the U.S. National team since the first day of pee wee soccer but most of us lack such early-formed destinies.

Our advice for 9th and the first half of 10th grade is simple—explore your options, try things out that sound interesting, and discover your passion(s).

Quality over quantity

Some applicants feel like quitting an activity amounts to a “sunken cost,” and should be avoided. This is a mental trap that needs to be avoided. Gutting-out activities in which you have little interest will get you nowhere in the long-run and will, in effect, actually waste valuable time you could be devoting to something you love.

If you tried Model U.N. and didn’t like it, then move on and devote more time to a preferred club or activity. If you hate sports, don’t play them. There is little to be gained by riding the bench as a back-up punter when you’d rather be prepping for Science Bowl.

Colleges want to see sustained commitment to 2-3 activities. Such commitment will typically lead to leadership positions by junior or senior year and will say more about you as a future campus contributor than a scattered and unfocused jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none approach.

Looking ahead

In a few years, you’ll be filling out the activities page on the Common App and refining your “brag sheet” addendums. Admissions officers will be asking themselves, “Do the applicant’s previous extracurriculars align with academic programs and/or activities offered on our campus?”

This is by no means to say that high school students should only pick activities that directly correspond with campus offerings. Instead, think of it in terms of a narrative that you will be able to express in an interview or essay. For example, you were heavily involved in buildOn in high school and plan to pursue volunteer work with an after-school program in a lower-income area near campus during college. Or perhaps you were passionate about robotics in high school and now plan to pursue an engineering major.

The bottom line

In summary, try to remember that no college, not even Princeton or Stanford, expect a 14/15 year old to be Leonardo da Vinci. Every high school student, including future applicants to elite colleges and universities, has a right to be a typical teenager who needs time to experiment, try and fail, contemplate, reassess, and change their mind a few times before settling on extracurricular activities that are the most fulfilling, worthwhile, and representative of them as an individual. Taking this path will invariably lead to a college applicant whom admissions officers will be clamoring to add to their well-rounded freshman class.

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.