Preparing for College

Are You Unique?

The late American social philosopher, Eric Hoffer, once said, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” That’s a “deep” thought that could apply to those of you ninth grade (or even younger) high school students who are beginning to think about your path to and through higher education. At least you should be starting to think about college, since it will play such an important part in setting a foundation for your journey through life.

Getting back to Hoffer, I might ask you a question: How do think of yourself? Do you go along to get along? That would be the way of the conformist. I think Hoffer was alluding to conformity when he said that even though we are free to do most anything (within the law and reasonable social norms, of course) with our lives, even as young people, we tend to be most strongly influenced by what others around us are doing. Thus, we tend to do many of the same things they’re doing. One thinks of sheep being herded and lemmings jumping off cliffs.

But what about uniqueness? Are you unique? Even if you consider yourself to be a conformist, do you have any stirrings inside that call out to “do it your way”? Now here’s where I’ll probably lose you (you young high schoolers). A good many years ago there was a very talented entertainer named Sammy Davis Jr. Ever heard of him? Anyway, one of his signature songs was I’ve Gotta Be Me. The part of that song that speaks to my point of inner stirrings goes:

I’ll go it alone, that’s how it must be.

I can’t be right for somebody else

If I’m not right for me.

I gotta be free, I’ve gotta be free,

Daring to try, to do it or die.

I’ve gotta be me.


If I can impose on highly dated popular musical knowledge once more, allow me to cite another partial lyric from a signature song of none other than “The Chairman of the Board,” Frank Sinatra. In his legendary song, I Did It My Way, we hear him intone:

For what is a man, what has he got?

If not himself, then he has not

To say the things he truly feels,

And not the words of one who kneels.

The record shows I took the blows

And did it my way.

Are you still with me, despite my detour back into the Age of Golden Voices? If so, I’ll now explain the connection between being unique and college admissions.

Did you ever wonder whether your skill in photography, sewing, or music would pay off? When you apply to college, it could.

Year after year, high schoolers and their families labor under the misconception that being “well rounded” is an important factor in college admissions. The truth is that most quality colleges are seeking well-rounded classes rather than well-rounded students. They’re looking for quality young people with unique talents.

What is a well-rounded class? It’s one whose members are talented in many endeavors. The important thing to note is that the students are not all good at tennis, piano, painting, poetry, and debating. There are a few who excel in athletics, a few in the arts, a few in politics, and so on. The diversity of abilities among the individual students comprises the well-rounded class.

A common mistake made by high school freshmen and sophomores is to set out to be involved in as many extracurricular activities as possible. By the time these dynamos reach their senior year, their resumes are bulging with all the things they did over four years of high school. This is not what admission committees are looking for. What they really want to see is evidence of excellence and long-term dedication to a few things.

For example, take the case of one high school senior with whom I worked. Since junior high, she spent six-to-ten hours a week volunteering to organize social activities for senior citizens in a nursing home near her home. She won the hearts of the residents and the respect, admiration, and thanks of the staff and administrators. She also qualified for state orchestra in her senior year, playing the oboe, a notoriously difficult double-reed woodwind instrument. Even as a top academic, she had time to be editor-in-chief of her yearbook.

Ultimately, she was accepted Early Decision at her first-choice college. The point here is that this young woman displayed long-term effort and quality performance in the areas of community service, music, and journalism. That set her apart from many other applicants in that ED pool.

If you’re wondering what kind of resume material college admission offices are looking for, remember this young lady. Devote time to your passion, whatever that is. Don’t spread yourself thin trying to look good. That tactic will likely backfire. Above all, do well in challenging classes. If you can manage this approach, you’ll find a spot in a great well-rounded class.


To put a cap on this discussion of the benefits of uniqueness and the possible detriments of conformity, here are some interesting thoughtsfrom the University of Minnesota’s Sarah Stoever, whose area of specialty is psychology. She notes:

“… conformity refers to ‘the tendency of people to alter their behavior as a result of group pressure.’ When I think of conformity, I automatically associate the word in negative terms. Certainly, history has proven that there are some cons to conformity. The danger occurs when people stop thinking critically about their actions and blindly follow those around them …”

Ah, there’s the key: Don’t stop thinking critically and simply follow those around you. Listen to and heed those entreaties coming from deep inside your soul. Are there advantages to being unique? You bet. Just remember Sammy Davis and Sinatra. You’ve gotta be you and do it your way!


Don’t forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.