Friday, April 8, 2011

On "well-roundedness"

High school students are frequently encouraged to make themselves "well-rounded" in an attemp to become more attractive applicants for the schools of their choice.  The "good" students follow suit and  participate in an array of experiences they hope will "round them out."  As a result, we see the honors student who is also a member of the varsity tennis team, sings in women's chorus, volunteers at the local elementary school, and works part time at the Kinko's downtown.  The common thinking is that this diversity of experience is good for both the student and the college who will one day send her an acceptance letter.  After all, we want well prepared students who can also contribute to a diverse or well-rounded student body.  But, this scenario is based on a particular assumption about  "well-roundedness," namely that in order to have a well-rounded campus, admissions offices must recruit and admit well-rounded individuals.  

The danger in recruiting an entire class of students like the hypothetical one I described above, is that a campus ends up not being well-rounded at all, but populated by a freshman class who all look the same.  Yes, the particular extra-curricular activities on each of their applications may vary a bit from one another, but they are nearly identical in that they have each dabbled in a number of things, but without developing the depth of passion or skill that comes through focused engagement in a single activity or area.  In contrast is the student who may not have been on the honor roll, lettered in a varsity sport, or volunteered at the hospital, but who was heavily involved in drama at their high school and who comes with deep passion and skill in that area.  Or, the student who was the editor of their school newspaper and who developed a broad set of skills through their involvement in that single activity.  

So, when we talk about having well-rounded students, do we mean breadth of experience or breadth of ability and skills.  My sense is that they aren't always the same and that a long list of extracurricular activities may or may not make for a well-rounded applicant or one who can make a unique and meaningful contribution to the campus community.  An incoming class made up of students who were highly engaged in a limited number of activities prior to enrolling in college, may be a more useful way of creating a well-rounded campus community.  And, maybe more importantly, such a practice signals to students that we value deep learning and focused engagement just as much (if not more) than the shotgun approach of doing a little of everything, without ever becoming immersed in an experience.

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