Do We Really Want Well-Rounded Students?

By Laura Ferguson

At Youth Resources’ High School TEENPOWER conference this summer, we invited our friends from a number of local nonprofit agencies to talk to our participants about volunteer opportunities.

At the end of the first workshop, I asked the hundred or so students in attendance about an agency, event or club with which they have experience as a volunteer. The students who spoke up had passion in their voices. They love the missions of their favorite groups, and they were excited about giving back through volunteering.

In my experience, admissions officers, scholarship committees and employers aren’t looking for students who are casually involved in everything. They want to see young leaders who have passion for a select few topics, clubs, agencies or programs and who have explored the depth and breadth of those passions.

Jeffrey Selingo delves into this theory in his Washington Post article “The myth of the well-rounded student? It’s better to be ‘T-shaped’.

Selingo writes, “Teachers and counselors have long encouraged students to be ‘well-rounded.’ But the problem with well-rounded students is that they usually don’t focus on any one thing for a prolonged period of time. Too often they seem to participate in activities just to check off a series of boxes, instead of showing the deep and sustained involvement, passion, and dedication that employers seek. Their résumés are filled with what some recruiters refer to as ‘sign-up clubs.’”

But what does being “T-shaped” mean? According to Selingo, “The vertical bar of the T represents a person’s deep understanding of one subject matter…The horizontal stroke of T-shaped people is the ability to work across a variety of complex subject areas with ease and confidence. It’s also about having balance and the agility to pick and choose from a set of knowledge and skills as they are needed.”

Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, researches what she calls a “growth mind-set.” Dweck has found that the students who thrive are “the ones who love what they’re doing and go at it vigorously.”

What does this mean for young students? Don’t over commit and under serve. Doing things that you’re passionate about – and doing them well – is way more important than doing it all.

Laura Ferguson is the Executive Director at Youth Resources.