Students at Carolina Day School in Asheville, North Carolina. Photography by Anastasiia Photography.

As any teenager—or parent of a teen—knows, the college admissions process is stressful. In addition to having a solid academic foundation of competitive grades and strong test scores, students often feel pressure to excel in a variety of extracurricular activities. To get a better understanding of how students can put their best foot forward for the college application process, we asked college counselors at five private high schools across the country to discuss the concept of the “well-rounded student”—what it means, why it’s a myth, and what truly matters to college admissions officers.

“Bottom line: there is no perfect formula for a student to follow.”

Jessica Browning, director of college counseling, Carolina Day School, Asheville, North Carolina: “One of the most common college application myths is that a student needs to present themselves as a well-rounded applicant to colleges. College admission offices need to make up a well-rounded class of students, as a whole. Some of the students a college accepts may be ‘well-rounded’ and are able to take on different roles both in and out of the classroom; however, it’s important for the colleges to have standouts in each class who have already presented themselves as a specialist in a certain area. It’s these specialists who can make the biggest impact on the sports teams, the college orchestra and bands, the undergraduate student publications, the theatre programs, etc.

Keeping in mind that academic performance is the most important aspect of a college application, I encourage students to take advantage of their time in high school to peruse various interests, and once they find something they enjoy doing, to take their involvement in that activity or interest to the next level. At Carolina Day that may be performing independent academic research, pursuing significant involvement in the local community, or dedicating a great deal of time to their craft (i.e., studio or theatre arts, filmmaking, computer programming, writing, making robots, dance, athletics, and so much more).

Bottom line: there is no perfect formula for a student to follow when presenting themselves to a college in an application. The most important thing a college admissions officer wants to see when they read an application is the ‘essence’ of who the student is, and they hope to see this through the essays, activities list, recommendations, transcript, and (sometimes) a personal interview. An applicant taking the time to explore their interests and actively engage in their own journey could have just as compelling an application as one who has established themselves a standout philanthropist.”

“A well-rounded applicant is both a strong student and eager to share their passions.”

Jennifer Berry, interim director of college counseling, Western Reserve Academy, Columbus, Ohio: “A well-rounded student will contribute to his or her college community academically, but will also enrich the campus through interests, citizenship, and participation. College students are engaged in class for 15-20 hours per week; this leaves significant time for them to study and then explore their varied interests. A well-rounded applicant is both a strong student and eager to share their passions and skills with the extended community.”

“I urge students to not be afraid to try something, but I also caution them not to think they have to do everything.”

Kemp Hoverston, co-director of college counseling and associate upper division director, Berkeley Preparatory School, Tampa, Florida: “Wise words from the then Dean of Admissions at a highly selective university stand out in my mind when I hear ‘well-rounded’ in reference to high school students. The dean shared with our parents that she considered the idea that colleges were seeking ‘well-rounded students’ one of the greatest myths in college admissions. She went on to say that she saw a significant part of her responsibility to the university to build a well-rounded community. In order to do that, she needed to find students who were very, very talented in specific ways. She went on to reassure students and parents that a student who is deeply invested in a specific pursuit has much to offer a community. This can be even more true if the student has taken the time to explore legitimate interests and through those pursuits has identified something that she or he is genuinely interested in and invested in pursuing. In light of that, I urge students to not be afraid to try something that sounds appealing to them or intrigues them, but I also caution them not to think they have to do everything. Authentic interest in extracurricular pursuits leads to genuine involvement and is really evident when you talk with a student—or read an essay about their experience.”

“I believe that students who are making decisions based on their values will feel personal fulfillment.”

Stacey Evert, director of college counseling and guidance, Brownell Talbot College Preparatory School, Omaha, Nebraska: “As students embark on the college process, I encourage them to reflect on their strengths, interests, and talents. Students should align their academic and extracurricular pursuits with their strengths and goals in order to maximize their high school experience. What stands out in the college process are students that are authentic in their pursuit of leadership, volunteer, and extracurricular involvement, as well as academic goals. I encourage students to identify their passions. I also encourage students to become self-aware of all of the experiences leading them up to this point. Students who are self-motivated and self-aware naturally shine throughout their application, from their essays and resume to their recommendation letters. These qualities will also stand out in an interview. Students who are able to showcase their academic curiosity, self-motivation, and drive to pursue their interests are successful in the college process. I believe that students who are making decisions based on their values will feel personal fulfillment.”

“It’s not just about having top grades or SAT scores, it is about bringing something to the table that students believe in.”

Amber Wilkins, director of college counseling, Blue Ridge School, Charlottesville, Virginia: “In the context of the college application process, I consider a student to be well rounded if he is both academically strong in the context of the student’s overall abilities and capabilities and if he has found a passion of some sort and is finding ways to live those passions in his day-to-day life. It’s not just about having top grades or SAT scores, it is about bringing something to the table that students believe in. It is about having a strong academic foundation, but one surrounded by passions, interests, and life experiences.

From my perspective, colleges just want to see that the student is attempting to find opportunities to pursue passions outside of what they might be able to do on campus or in addition to what they are currently doing. Similar to how we approach project-based learning, colleges like to see students who have put their passions and experiences to work. What they learn in the classroom should be applied outside. Any experience that a student takes part in, either a summer program, internship or opportunity for growth, colleges will see this as a positive experience and one that has enhanced the student’s classroom and academic experience. It doesn’t matter the class or the location, or the program in my opinion, just that they have sought out additional ways to grow and learn.”