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Admissions Advice: Don't Be Well-rounded, Do This Instead 

“Here’s a thing: universities are not looking for well-rounded students. The last thing they need is 2,000 clones of the same type of student. That’s why universities are looking for a well-rounded class.”

I've seen students drive themselves to exhaustion chasing extra clubs, competing in sports they don't like, and playing instruments that drive them crazy. Or volunteering for hundreds of hours in community service chosen because they believed it was what the admission officers "wanted to see." Don't buy the hype.


  • Why a "well-rounded strategy” is a myth and why you don’t want to follow it
  • The single most important piece of advice to help you attend an elite university
  • What does it really take to develop an impressive spike that helps you stand out from other students
  • A step you cannot miss to start developing your expertise in just about any area
  • Practical actions you can take to become an elite student
  • And so much more.

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– Steve Gardner, Founder

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Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

Let's get real with one one of the most common myths around elite university admissions today. This myth has been a myth for a long time, well over ten years, but somehow it just persists. Years ago, decades ago, if you wanted to seek admission to some of the elite universities in the United States, the best thing you could do was be well rounded.

Show that you're not just outstanding in your academics, but that you also play one or more instruments, that you speak one or more foreign languages, that you excel in sports, that you show leadership. And in addition to all of this, it seemed to be helpful if you volunteered now to become this Renaissance man or Renaissance woman and just become outstanding at everything you do. That was impressive.

And that was what universities indeed were looking for. Get perfect test scores, perfect grades, and just be perfect at everything else. Well, if you're not perfect in everything and you don't show that kind of balance, and you don't excel in all of those areas, which, let's be honest, a lot of people don't, there's some good news that has not been a helpful way into elite universities for at least ten or 15 years.

It's been a long time since that was a reasonable strategy to get in. So here's the thing. Universities are not looking for well rounded students.

Are they going to admit a few of these Renaissance men and women? Of course, some of the people that they will admit into the class will be the royal rounded ones. But what universities are looking for is a well rounded class, not well rounded students. So think about this from the university's perspective.

The last thing that they need is in a class of 2000 students to have 2000 clones of the same kind of person, to have 2000 well rounded people. What they want instead is a diverse class, a class that is more than the sum of its parts, that has different ideas and different backgrounds and different cultural contexts. And when you combine all of those things, the class by itself becomes this kind of ecosystem where different outstanding students can support each other.

And then through those four years of university, the students support each other and learn and grow from each other and become greater than they could have possibly been if there were 2000 clones of the same kind of person. Does that make sense? That is how these elite universities are thinking about their class. So rather than trying to become well rounded, what we actually recommend to those who have ambitions to attend these elite universities become unique, become elite in one or two areas, almost always only one area.

Because becoming truly elite is pretty difficult, and you do have to maintain your grades throughout this. So what does it mean to develop a spike? Well, an impressive spike, a spike that helps you stand out and be more likely to be considered at one of these elite universities is to excel on a national or even international level. So that means that you are winning music competitions or you are performing your instrument at nationally or internationally recognized venues.

You are winning national and international awards and scholarships. You're participating, competing, and winning on a national or international level. And if you start early and you want to develop yourself in that way, you can develop yourself in whatever direction you choose.

I'll go ahead and link in the show notes. A previous podcast that I did around what's called Deliberate Practice. And Deliberate Practice is this outstanding work that's been done that shows that talent is not what creates elite performance.

So if you believe that it's impossible for you to become outstanding on such a high level at anything while you're still in high school, go ahead and listen to that podcast. I'll link it in the notes and you can challenge that perspective. Challenge the talent myth.

Everyone can be truly great at something, and if that's where you want to go, then listening to and following the advice in the podcast around Deliberate Practice is your best way to get there. However, I must emphasize because I'm giving this advice outside of the context of the Ivy League Challenge. Normally when we talk about this, when I talk about this, it is after we have spent hours helping students identify their values.

So that's my advice to you as well. Since you're just listening to my voice on a podcast, if you have not spent time identifying your personal values, you must start there. Don't develop expertise at a national or international level just so that you can game the system.

Not only is it not going to work, you will not have the fortitude and the resilience and the grit to get to these top levels if it's not something you genuinely are passionate about, but gaming the system is just a bad idea. If you're trying to pick an activity based on what you think your favorite university is going to be impressed by, that is like trying to decide which fruit is best. Okay, maybe you do have a favorite fruit.

Maybe you are a banana or you are a grape. And if the university that you are applying to is trying to put together the most epic fruit salad in the world, they are not going to be looking for bananas once they already have them. Even if you are a really, really good banana, they're not going to be looking for more bananas because that does not make a great fruit salad.

Okay? But the good news is there's another university that needs bananas. A really, really good university that needs bananas. And you're going to be just perfect for them.

So rather than trying to change your values in order to fit into the university that you think is your dream school, which unfortunately, I see so many students do, instead become the best banana you can be, or become the best grape, or become the best whatever you are. Identify your values and live them out to the absolute fullest. That is your best chance for admittance.

All right? So I really want to be clear. You begin by identifying your personal values. Do not do this to game the system, okay? So I just want to make that super duper clear.

But the point remains, if you want to develop a well developed spike, you should be excelling on a national or international level. If you start early enough, you can develop yourself in whichever direction you choose. Now, here's where we get even more strategic.

As you develop yourself into this person who excels on a national level or international level, you do need to find a way to leave a trail of evidence. Now, sometimes that's going to be done for you. Sometimes you're going to have awards.

You're going to participate in groups that are so well known for being outstanding at this level that just being a member of the group is going to be evidence enough that you are at this level. But elite performance in some activities requires that you do something. You create the evidence trail.

So maybe that means that you keep a blog. And at first, all you're doing is blogging. But as you get better and better, you start to promote yourself to local media and then regional and bigger and bigger state, and then national, et cetera, you promote yourself to relevant media outlets.

The next thing you need to do is get to know the teachers who write the best recommendation letters and make sure that they hear about your successes. So involve one to three teachers, some of the best teachers in your school in meaningful ways in your development. You can also network with parents or peers or teachers or peers parents to expand the influence or the impact of your expertise.

And I must say, this is a huge advantage of the Ivy League Challenge because peers are located all around the world. It's an impressive network of people who are all doing outstanding work, and they can provide tremendous support to you as you develop yourself and make your impact. So, for example, from the Ivy League Challenge, most of our students do network with university professors to support their research.

And to facilitate that, we provide in the program outreach email templates to make it easy for you to reach out and find the kind of professor that's going to be thrilled to work with you. We also have students that network with movers and shakers in their community to increase their impact. I teach my students how to identify who those key players might be and of course, how to reach out to them in ways that is going to get responses.

I also teach my students how to proactively, reach out to media and tell their story. Now what? If you're listening to this and you are a junior in high school, it's too late now to develop into an elite performer in time to apply to university. It is not too late to develop yourself, by the way.

But yes, I recognize that university applications have deadlines and those deadlines need to be met. So if you didn't start early enough, or maybe you're a junior in high school and you still don't even know what your values are, by the way, that's totally normal. You have grown up as a young child all the way through childhood and adolescence in school.

You have been told what to value and how to value it. You've been told through an education system that assesses different criteria, assesses you and your performance in certain ways, and all of that is telling you what is valuable and what is not. Very, very few people have been through any kind of meaningful exercises to teach them or help them identify what their personal values are.

So if you're 15, 1617 years old and you still don't know what your personal values are, join the club. That's most of humanity all the way into middle age. That is a tragedy and something that must be improved on.

But if that's your position, begin with identifying what your values are, okay, as best you can, try to figure out what your personal values are, and then once you have them, begin brainstorming options that are at the intersection of two of your passions. So it takes a lot of development and training to become truly elite at a national or international level in any one field, whether that's business or science or Stem or music or sports or anything else. However, it doesn't take quite as much work.

But it's no less impressive for you to find the intersection of two of your passions and become one of the best in the nation or the world at that smaller niche. So in other words, instead of becoming the best in the world at writing, which is a pretty high bar, lots of people love to write and do it very, very well, become one of the best in the nation or in the world at the intersection of writing and science. Because you also love science, you can create a podcast or a blog or perhaps a YouTube channel or write curriculum and teach science at an elite level.

Another idea instead of becoming nationally or internationally recognized in economics, which is very, very difficult to do, combine your passion and your expertise in economics with your personal value, your personal passion for gender equity, and create a gender neutral economics textbook. And I'll go ahead and link in the show notes to my interview with iris, where she talks about how this was her impact project. This is what she did, the intersection of gender equity and economics.

She wrote a textbook and then distributed it around schools in her community. And it was good enough. This gender neutral economics textbook was good enough that many schools adopted it and began using it.

The next example rather than becoming world class in architectural design or in business, integrate your passion for design into your business club that you started. And one final example perhaps you could combine empathy and economics to create a real life solution in your community for a disadvantaged population. And of course, the examples go on and on and on.

This list is endless, which is what makes it so fun and so useful. Now, my last piece of advice. I realize this is abbreviated, this process, and this mindset is so much more developed, and we talk about it quite a bit in pillars three and four of the Ivy League Challenge.

This mindset is so helpful in so many ways for university application, but also just personal development, for your ability to begin seeing yourself as someone special who makes a difference. This mindset will live well beyond university and pay off handsomely in the professional world after university. As someone who has developed themselves in these ways and has cultivated this mindset, you will be so valuable out in the business and the professional world.

So one last piece of advice. As you are specializing, keep track of your ups and downs. Keep a journal, keep a Vlog somehow, keep track of your ups and downs, especially your emotional response to those ups and downs.

Some of the most valuable material will come from your self awareness and growth during the most painful, quote unquote, failures. So the great thing about just taking the risk and running with it and going for it no matter what, is that if you're successful, that's super impressive. You've developed yourself, you've created an impact, you've made a difference that is truly impressive and your application stands out, you stand out.

You become the kind of person that these elite universities want. If along the way, you fall and you fall hard and it's painful, and you learn something because you've become self reflective, because you've developed your self awareness and your emotional intelligence along the way, guess what? Some of the best personal essays are descriptions of how that fall made you feel and what you learned when you fell. And if there is one thing that I love about college admissions, as someone who cares about people and cares about your personal development, I must say the motivation that knowing your failure might be as valuable or more valuable than your success is so priceless.

And the truth is, for middle school and high school students swinging hard and shooting for the stars and just trying to do something really, really amazing outside of what you think is possible and then failing is oftentimes as valuable, if not more valuable, than trying to do something impossible and succeeding. And so you have nothing to lose, my friend. The only way you really lose by following this strategy and taking on this mindset is if you ignore what I said.

And instead, you try to game the system. You try to develop yourself in the way that you think college admissions officers are going to feel is most impressive. Rather than developing yourself based on your personal values, trust me, the last thing you want to do is try to get into the mind of whoever your admissions officer might be.

Instead, follow the process. Trust the process, identify your values, and then begin developing yourself. Set for yourself an impossibly ambitious goal, and develop yourself as someone who excels nationally or internationally in the field that you're most passionate about, or solve a real problem, a significant problem, at the intersection of two of your values.

Keep track of your successes and failures along the way. One, because this is amazing, what you're doing, and you deserve to keep track. And two, because that information is gold to give to your teachers who write letters of recommendation, your college counselor who writes a letter of recommendation for you and for your personal essays.

When you apply to university, more than anything else, just have fun with it. Figure out what your values are so that you can become the best of whatever you are. And when you apply to university, one of those amazing universities is going to need you as part of their salad.

So what are you waiting for? Don't put it off. Today is your day. Get started. You have nothing to lose.