exploring extracurricular interests

A College Counselor’s (& Parent’s) Perspective on Exploration vs. Specialization

Back in May, I shared this article with my colleagues, along with my own quick response: “Fun article valuing exploration rather than early specialization. References data that pre-meds and similarly focused students earn more out of the gate, but the explorers outpace them long term.” The author is a new parent, like myself, and his parenting values aligned with my own: nurture your kid’s curiosity, encourage them to explore and play and try new things, and don’t get wrapped up in any particular talent or accomplishment. It’s a good read, a reassuring read, for parents who aren’t raising a Perfect Golden Child. (And for all regular people, really.)

I believe this author’s message. Successful professionals are flexible, adaptable, and able to pull different tools out of their toolkit to get the job done. That versatility comes from having a broad range of skills and experiences under one’s belt, rather than singular expertise honed to perfection. And colleges truly value the joy and wonder (or fury and action) that young people emanate as they discover new truths about their world.

But here’s the thing. In the midst of all these butterflies and roses on the winding path to enlightenment comes the college admissions process. My colleagues and I regularly tell juniors and seniors to commit deeply to a few things, engage in activities where they can have meaningful impact, perhaps let a few activities go so they can prioritize growth within the specific arenas they’ve chosen. So how do I reconcile everything this author is saying—everything I believe to be true—with the paper trail I’m also used to seeing from successful applicants to highly selective colleges who have narrowed their focus?

Individual readiness and student-led choice.

We all develop differently, and when young people are ready to commit to a few things they love, the freedom of making that choice allows them to thrive. That transition from generalization to specialization should happen when the young person is ready to make it happen. If that choice is rooted in genuine inclination and excitement to engage, a student can have the sort of natural impact that makes them feel proud (and impresses colleges).

In contrast, when that choice to specialize is rooted in a fear of falling behind, a disinclination to try things they don’t already know they’ll be good at, or external pressure from others (a parent or a college counselor), students are less likely to see the outcomes they were striving for. A paper trail of success without the heart and soul that comes from pursuing it with joy and intention doesn’t yield college admissions results. (And a host of movies from the 90s and early 00s starring actresses like Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon suggest that it also doesn’t lead to long-term happiness.) I’d rather see a student’s application focus on the things they’re excited about or proud of right now, whatever that might be, rather than try to affect “truths” rooted in specialized “passions” they aren’t reaching naturally.

The college applicants I remember years after reading their applications were not the ones who had accomplished something incredible, but rather who had engaged so fully in whatever they were doing, who took charge of their endeavors with open arms regardless of the outcome. If your student has the enthusiasm and self-awareness to specialize in their mid-teens, how wonderful! If your student has the bravery and curiosity to keep exploring in their mid-teens, how wonderful! I hope we all find the confidence to follow our children’s leads, let them show us who they are becoming, and be proud of their journeys, whatever those may be.

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Written by Becky Leichtling
Becky Leichtling is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Becky is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Education; prior to joining College Coach, Becky was a senior admissions officer at Tufts University.