The college admissions process is evolving rapidly and has changed markedly over the past half-to-full decade, as the most selective schools look for demonstrated passions rather than the well-roundedness that was most desirable for Gen X and early millennial applicants.
I experienced this firsthand last year when by brother went through the admissions process, and it is consistent with what several college counselors told me off the record.
"Parents need to know that signing their kids up to play an instrument and be on the board of three student clubs doesn't matter anymore for an elite school," said one anonymous admissions director at a school ranked in the top 20 in the last US News and World Report Rankings. "If they are deeply passionate about music and played at Carnegie Hall, well that is a different story."
When I had my own college admissions process, in 2006-07, colleges were just beginning to make this adjustment. I remember in my optional admissions interview to Johns Hopkins that my interviewer referred repeatedly to my founding of my public, inner city high school's debate team, and my passion for teaching the junior varsity recruits, and my sense that this played a key role in overcoming my lack of well-rounded academic credentials (my C in math, in other words).
The challenge parents and students must now navigate is that, with admissions percentages to the top 40 US schools now generally south of 20%, the student's application must really stand out of the crowd.
"Applicants are divided into four categories: a slim "amazing" category, a slim "yes-legacy" category, a large "no" pool, and the rest," said a different admissions director. "The students admitted from "the rest" all have something special that draws a director's eye and earns them a champion when their application is reviewed. For example, I had one recent applicant who wrote about the experience of coming out transgender in rural Texas and creating a pro-LGBT student club, and that student's passionate resilience swayed the admissions committee."
Indeed, one way to think of this is specialization. Unlike in the past, when colleges wanted kids they thought would blend in well and earn straight As on their campuses, elite schools now want to create a quilt of people that each contribute something unique to the class.
"Your kids do not need to excel in everything they do. Instead encourage them to focus on the activities and classes that are the most meaningful. Whatever they passionate about, make sure that your kids do the best they can in those areas. Admissions officers value specialists who can contribute unique skills, experiences, and ideas to their campuses," said Greg Kaplan, a private college counselor and the founder of "Earning Admission."