The advantages and disadvantages of being a well-rounded student

The advantages and disadvantages of being a well-rounded student

Being a “well-rounded” student comes with a certain list of connotations.  I’m sure we can all think of someone from a class of ours who was involved in 13 clubs, 6 volunteer opportunities per week, fluent in 2 other languages, and could play the piano so well it put Beethoven to shame. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit here, but nevertheless you get the point. There has always been a pressure placed on students to achieve high grades as well as demonstrate that they are more than just a one-trick pony. There seems to be an immense pressure on students who want to get accepted to colleges or graduate programs to “have a finger in every pie”—to be involved to some degree in everything.

However, the tides seem to be turning. There is not as much of a unilateral pressure to become “well-rounded”. According to some recent articles being published, there are some cons being discussed along with the pros.

So, why don’t we delve into the discussion:


The student can end up spread too thin [2]

            It’s easy to see. Look around your high school or your college campus. Look in the mirror. When a person is trying to do as many things as possible, it follows that some ball will be dropped, a deadline will be missed, information will be misconstrued. Rather than focusing on studying to understand the material, perhaps the student will only be seeking rote memorization so that they can have an extra hour for that volunteer opportunity. Maybe this person is slacking in their leadership role on campus in order to study more that one class. The list of pushes and pulls is infinite.

Please don’t interpret this the wrong way, my dear overworked and overtired students. You are all incredible people for taking on your education and your future in such a direct way. When these slip-ups happen, I’m not trying to assign blame. Instead, I want to use this as a way to explain how it extra-curriculars and the drive to become well-rounded has taken over as a cultural phenomenon. Being pulled in so many directions simply is not sustainable, yet we’re told that it is an absolute requirement to success.


It shows time management and other professional skills [1]

            This point seems to flow from the previous. If a person really can have all those lines on their CV by the time they’re applying to college or graduate studies, they must have impeccable time management skills [2]. Being able to successfully juggle the stress of classes, internships, volunteering, and whatever else may be on your plate is very indicative of success at the next level [1].

Practice developing social and professional skills is also a major “pro”. [10]. Research has shown that when a person is confined to a single, relatively stable group of people they are—on average—less successful than those who have an ever-changing and diverse network of people [10]. We can gather that people who take on more extra-curricular activities would likely have a larger network of people, and that these networks would be changing more frequently. Based on data collected by Forbes [11], these students may be more successful in the long run.

In addition, a peroson being able to handle so many different tasks also shows that they must have a way to balance out all the demands of their daily life as well as the demands imposed on them by their extra-curriculars.  Ideally, that person has also found a way to decompress and take a little time for self-care in order to avoid burnout (but that’s a whole other blog post).  These are all invaluable skills that are necessary to move up to the next level, whatever that may be.


It no longer sets the student apart from the rest [5]

            “In a world where everyone is super… no one will be” [7]. Although the quote comes from a children’s movie (The Incredibles, to be exact), it still holds merit. This line comes when the villain is revealing his plans to sell inventions to the world which will allow everyone to become super. He means that by letting everyone become special, they will no longer be unique, and therefore no longer special.

This notion can apply to the concept of extra-curriculars as well. When we are building our resumes, what makes us different, unique, special… super? We can think that having so many lines on our CV makes us different, but there will always be someone who has that extra opportunity on their list [5]. Chances are, when you are applying for the highly coveted place at your school of choice, there will be a stack of applications with just as many individuals who are just as “well-rounded” as you are [5]. Simply taking on tasks because you think it will make you better than the next person is not a real passion, and it definitely should not be the reason that you pick up French lessons in the afternoons.


A range of experiences can help prepare a student for a range of challenges in the future [3].

I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase before: “experience is the best teacher”. Having students participate in several different activities comes with the good intention of allowing students a background (however brief) in multiple areas. It also allows them the opportunity to attempt to bridge the different learning experiences. For example, a student taking a leadership seminar may be able to apply some of the concepts that they have learned to a soccer team they play on—even though they are not the captain. You have the opportunity to take skills and concepts learned in one area of your life and apply them to different scenarios and settings. Problem solving with skills learned from a vast background has been shown to be one of the most effective approaches [9; 11].

This seems to agree with the concept of a liberal arts education. I feel it necessary to disclose a bit of bias here. As the product of a liberal arts education, I cannot be more in favor of the liberal arts system. I wholeheartedly agree with the goals of creating lifelong learners who have a broad background to approach problems from an interdisciplinary stance.

That being said, the research seems to agree that liberal arts has a positive effect on student’s overall outcomes at the time of graduation [9]. This research has the potential to be generalized to a liberal arts approach to extra-curricular activities. These experiences have the potential to encourage a variety of lived experiences, foster interactions with peers and instructors, and create a broad perspective from which the student can draw. As we learned earlier, having broad experiential background [9] and network of support [11] from which to draw has been shown to help students in their future endeavors.


The system seems slanted toward people with more resources [4]

It’s no secret that families that can afford to help their kids with the financial burden of college open a range of non-paid opportunities that might not be an option for students in lower income brackets [4]. In an anecdotal example, one student came to his admissions counselor feeling as though he would not be a candidate for a “good school” simply because he did not have the time to volunteer as much as the others in his graduating class [4]. Because he came from a lower SES, he was required to have a part-time job outside of his classes. The fact that he had a job precluded him from participating in a laundry list of extra-curriculars and resume-builders because of the time constraints [4]. He was under the impression that it is mandatory to have an extensive list of experiences by the time one graduates high school. However, his dedication to his job and skills that he acquired while working all proved to be marketable skills in the college hunt [4].

One article found that this generation is volunteering only about a third of the time that its older counterparts did [8]. While there are several reasons why this could be, the most prominent one seemed to be employment [8]. There are many young people and students who need to have gainful employment just to stay afloat. If colleges and universities are requiring so many unpaid hours, it would seem to slant towards those who can afford to have experiences for which they are not paid.

It would seem that there are too many positives to entirely throw out the idea of becoming a well-rounded individual, but there are also too many negatives to leave the system entirely as-is. So, what can we use to moderate these experiences?

Passion is the key.

Allowing your passion to shine through is the most important thing in any situation, interview, or experience. It is important to remember that these interviewers have seen a myriad of other students who have a staggering resume. They can tell when someone is more interested in how they portray themselves rather than having a genuine passion for something.

One article suggested that instead of being “well-rounded”, we should strive to be more “well-angled”. Rather than being taken in a bunch of different directions, students should instead allow their focus to guide our extra-curricular choices. Rather than having a piece of you being pulled in every direction imaginable, try to focus your extra-curricular involvement.

It is important that the point here does not get lost in translation—I’m not saying that all extra curriculars are evil. Much to the contrary; extra-curriculars have become a sort of currency, rather than a way to more deeply explore one’s passions. Having extra lines on your CV is an excellent thing, as long as your passion doesn’t become getting the longest CV possible. As one of my graduate-school advisors has frequently reminded me, it’s all about weaving together a story about how you arrived at their office. All of these experiences and opportunities have helped to build you into the individual that you are now and have helped to fuel your passion.


Suggested Further Reading:

What the Best College Students D  by Ken Bain

CITATION: Bain, K. (2012). What the best college students do. Harvard University Press.


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  2. Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK.
  3. Parsons, D. (2018). 3 Proven Steps to Make Sure Your Student’s Application Stands Out – Student-Tutor Blog. Retrieved from
  4. Block, L. (2016). Why Colleges Don’t Want “Well-Rounded” Students. Retrieved from
  5. Well-Rounded College Applicants | Ivy Coach College Admissions Blog. (2015). Retrieved from
  6. Macan, T. H., Shahani, C., Dipboye, R. L., & Phillips, A. P. (1990). College students’ time management: Correlations with academic performance and stress. Journal of educational psychology82(4), 760.
  7. Walker, J. (Producer), & Bird, B. (Director). (2004). The Incredibles [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures & Pixar Animation Studios.
  8. Rudgard, O. (2017). Volunteer organisations face recruitment crisis as young people can’t afford to give up time for free. Retrieved from
  9. Seifert, T. A., Goodman, K. M., Lindsay, N., Jorgensen, J. D., Wolniak, G. C., Pascarella, E. T., & Blaich, C. (2008). The effects of liberal arts experiences on liberal arts outcomes. Research In Higher Education49(2), 107-125.
  10. Adler, L. (2017). The Single Best Predictor of Job Success. Retrieved from ictor-of-job-success.html
  11. Simmons, M. (2015). The No. 1 Predictor Of Career Success According To Network Science. Retrieved from