Why being Well-Balanced is a Negative Approach: A University of Pennsylvania Success Story

Theme vs. Well-Balanced
Many consultants, high school teachers, counselors and parents think that because happiness in life requires a well-balanced approach, so success in college admissions does as well. Not so. This philosophy has been around for a long time but died years ago as admissions applications increased and admissions committees permanently changed the way they approached applications. The idea behind creating a well-balanced application is to show that the student has no glaring weaknesses—that he can do everything and is good at everything. That he is a balanced individual and a good citizen. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t work. What that idea creates in the end is a boring student. One that looks like every other student and doesn’t answer the main questions admissions officers are asking.


Admissions officers want to know three things: 1) Who are you? Do you know yourself? What is your identity? Are you self-aware? 2) Why you? Why should we pick you over the other 50,000 applicants? What makes you different? 3) Why do you want to come to our school? A well-balanced student, in most cases, doesn’t seem to know who he is. Worse, he doesn’t answer the second question at all. The only way to answer the questions properly is to create a unique and compelling theme.

A University of Pennsylvania Success Story of a Leadership Themed-Student

The Story

They say the road to success is paved with many failures. They also say that sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. This is often the case when a student starts consulting elsewhere and comes to us. There are many good consulting firms. But there are also many that lack the quality and expertise to properly guide students.

Zach came to me through a former student. He was enthusiastic and his mom was as genuine a person as I have ever met. Immediately he started to tell me about all the wonderful things he had done. Before he got too far, I interrupted him and asked why he was telling me all these things he had done. That is, if everything was going great with his current consultant, why was he here talking to me.

The mom calmly explained that his current consultant was his former SAT instructor and was not necessarily a professional consultant. Zach too wanted some validation as to whether his current focus was right and whether his current activities would actually help. Knowing now why they were here and what I could do to help them, I opened my file, started taking notes and listened very carefully.

Spread Thin

Zach was involved in the following activities:

  • Music
  • Tutoring
  • Writing an art research paper
  • Planning a trip to Cambodia
  • Working on a business plan through the school’s business club
  • and 5-7 different activities, all in different areas

I asked the obvious question, “Why are your activities so scattered all over the place? Do you not know what you want to do? Do you not know yourself?” Zach looked confused and when I asked again, he suddenly looked downcast. He mumbled that his consultant had guided him thus. Then the mom explained that the consultant had told them that Zach must be “well-rounded” and they had tried to cover all their holes or weaknesses.

I explained the pitfalls of this approach to Zach and he started crying. Actually, he was weeping and I was shocked. Then I felt sorry (had I been too honest?). I looked at the mom and she was stunned that Zach was taking it so hard. I tried to comfort him and told him that we still have some time so let’s do our best. The mom asked if I would take him on as a student and I told them that I would think about it over the week. But in the meantime, we could email and for the next few days I would help as much as I could. Honestly, the student’s extracurriculars looked so thinly spread out, I knew it would be hard to create a strong theme, so I was hesitant.

Download our free Success Stories pdf for 6 success stories (with full student profiles) of students who gained admissions to Columbia, MIT, Caltech, Dartmouth and more!

Developing Zach’s Theme
However, over the next few days, the student called, emailed and texted me several times. He impressed me with his conscientiousness, assertiveness and sense of responsibility. He won me over and we decided to work together. The first thing we did was to take out all the little activities that didn’t fit anywhere. Then we discussed his passions, interests, main hobbies and activities. I looked over his questionnaires and talked in detail with both his parents about his personality and dreams.

After a month it became clear that Zach was a very idealistic student with tons of dreams about the future. He was also quite a leader. We decided to run for student council president. He also took over Red Cross as President. His campaign for student council was “Reaching Out to the World.” And he talked about creating and supporting service clubs that got students involved in global causes not just ones in the school or in the neighborhood. To set an example he started Amnesty International at his school.

At the same time, he focused on his test scores but it was very difficult. In spite of his best efforts, his SAT I score stayed below 2000 (out of 2400). His GPA was continuing to increase and was at a 3.9. So his overall Academic Index looked decent, although not great. We would really have to make a unique and compelling theme to win over the admissions officers.

After a month of hard work campaigning, Zach was elected student council president. His natural charisma, well thought-out strategies and hard work had paid off. He spent 25-30 hours a week on the three main activities and out of that we developed a Leadership theme, one that emphasized being a servant leader – a leader that doesn’t brag or show off, but one that serves others to create a better society.

Fast forward to application time and Zach was deferred from Penn (The University of Pennsylvania), his first choice. We applied to all schools that look for leaders and students involved in service activities. In April, I got the message that Zach was waitlisted from Penn. We got to work again and wrote a long letter reiterating his desire to go to Penn. We updated the committee on recent accomplishments, e.g. he recently held a cookie drive and got over 200 signatures for an Amnesty campaign supporting free speech in China. Finally, we attached a recommendation from the Dean of Students at his school.

Two weeks later, I was elated to hear that Zach had gotten off the waitlist and was accepted to Penn. He jokingly asked me whether, since he was also accepted to UC Berkeley, which school he should choose.

Theme Summary
There are 4 critical areas to cover when constructing an application theme:

1. Academics
2. Extracurriculars – Leadership
3. Extracurriculars – Scholarship
4. Competitions/Achievements

Zach’s Summary

Zach didn’t have the best numbers. His SAT was a 1950, but his unweighted GPA was a strong 3.9. His school didn’t have many challenging courses but he did take all the APs (5) available to demonstrate his academic strengths. He also scored a 700 on SAT II Math IIc, 680 on SAT II US History and 700 on SAT II Biology.

Extracurriculars – Leadership
His three core activities were student council, Red Cross and Amnesty International. He actually wrote his extracurricular essay on the failures and successes of launching Amnesty at his school, while his main essay focused on what he learned as a servant leader through his experience has leading his three main clubs.

Extracurriculars – Scholarship
Zach spent a great deal of any extra time he had preparing for the SAT I. When it became clear his score was not improving, we decided to shift to augmenting the scholarship side of his theme development work. He worked with Yohan, one of our Senior Mentors who focuses on political activism, and wrote a 12-page paper on the history of armed conflict in the Congo region of Africa. The paper was stellar, very well-research and well-written and it was picked for publication in the high school academic journal, Review of Human Rights.

The only competition or achievement-type activity Zach had was his research paper. However, it was a big one. Research papers can be sent along with the applications, discussed in the college essays and be submitted to journals for publication.

For more success stories, tips and guidance on creating your student’s own unique and compelling theme sign up now for our downloadable booklet, Success Stories, featuring 6 Ivy League success stories about students who got into Columbia, MIT, Caltech, Dartmouth and more. Success Stories offers an intimate look at these students’ success stories as well as a detailed look at their profile. See what activities and programs helped them get into the schools of their choice.

Download our free Success Stories pdf for 6 success stories (with full student profiles) of students who gained admissions to Columbia, MIT, Caltech, Dartmouth and more!