Skip to content

You Don’t Have to be Spiky, but Please Don’t be Well-rounded

starfish image

I’m possibly the least well-rounded person you will ever meet.

I mean it. I suck at so many things. Just terrible. I can’t do math, or draw, or cook, or sing, or act, or include the unbelievable artwork from my artist, Felicia Tzeng, on Reddit , or plan, or make a competent TikTok , or lift heavy things, or dress myself, or promote stuff correctly, or lightly edit a piece once it’s live without the entire Goddamn universe crashing in upon me, or sit through a movie without biting my nails, or be normal even when I really need to be…the list goes on and on.

I also wouldn’t necessarily call myself “spiky.” If I had a spike, it would be writing. But it’s not like I’m out here winning Pulitzers. There’s a reason I put my stuff out for free on Reddit instead of slamming it into a book. I tried that once before. No one bought the book.

But along with writing, I’d also say I’m quite good at college admissions info, explaining new concepts and ideas…talking about myself, telling jokes, ummm, analyzing handwriting, ummm, Playing Smash Bros at bars, ummmmm…

See? Not that spiky.

But I get enough nice DMs to know I’m good at what I do. It makes me feel grateful for all the support I’ve gotten and proud that I’ve been able to capitalize on and combine what I am good at to make myself happy and give back to the world.

That leads us to today’s question:

Hi! I’m a rising sophomore. I’ve read most of your blogs, and I think they’re gold and make a ton of sense. But they also freak me out. How am I supposed to find a weird hobby? On top of doing well in school? And having amazing extracurriculars? And family stuff? And how am I supposed to have a unique life so I have “unique” half ideas? It’s so much work, stress, pressure, everything. I guess my real question is do you have any tips to manage the stress of applying to college or thinking about college in the future and trying to apply all the stuff I read on the internet and be a good, cool, passionate, driven person that gets enough sleep?

Sorry, no.

…Yes, I have an answer.

This question cuts to the heart of what I find to be the single worst thing about college admissions. It is an objective fact that getting into college is not conducive to living a fun, care-free teen life*.* I’m smacked in the face with this fact every October 31st. That’s the night before the first major round of EA/ED applications are due, and it is the first major checkpoint on the college application Grand Prix. For the first couple of years at my job, I would send out some “fun” Email congratulating my students on working so hard and demanding they do something to celebrate the holiday.

I stopped after realizing that every student would then report they either fell asleep at 7 PM or were too nervous about submitting things to do much of anything. I extra stopped when a student responded, “did you do something fun?”

No. I was up until 2 AM copy-editing, and then I watched a baseball game on DVR because I couldn’t sleep.

Being in the weeds with you students gives me a crystal-clear understanding of what modern high school life is like. It sucks! But, to be fair, it sucks in mostly the same ways it did in 2009. I played the game just as hard in high school as I do with students now. And in both cases, it’s worked. That’s why I’m not the guy to tell you a summer job and Flaming Hot Cheetos LORs will be enough. Not if you want to go big.

So that’s why I cringe every time there’s some post on Reddit that’s like, “remember to enjoy being a teen, you guys!” It’s patronizing because it implies that every student here isn’t “enjoying being a teen” because either they don’t want to or because they don’t have their priorities straight. And as College With Goddamn Mattie, I believe most of you have your hearts in the right place, doing whatever you can to achieve your goals.

So what do we do about this?

We avoid being well-rounded as hard as humanly possible. And in doing so, we cut out as much unimportant bullshit that makes us tired and unhappy as we can.

I was inspired to write this after reading u/admissionsmom ‘s book last night. It’s super good! You should buy it and read it and give it 5-stars!

I ended up in the chapter about the well-rounded/spike debate, and Miss Mom described a 5-prong starfish. Instead of having endless stuff, she recommended students pick around five things they care about and go for those as hard as they can.

I think my starfish would have three legs. Or like, two legs and one little toe.

Anyone here ever play World of Warcraft? I know the answer is no, but I have to ask. It was the video game that made young men uninteresting before DOTA and League took over. In WoW, you made your little gnome or goblin or whatever, and then you had three slots to decide.




So for example, I was usually a Mage as a class, a healer as a sub-class, and a tailor as a profession. I can feel people back-clicking I type, so I’ll now convert those three concepts into what I think they should mean for your application.

Class: This is what you plan to declare as your major. This was the first piece of content I published, and I feel like I agree with it even more now that I’m filling out apps again. You want/need to be spending a lot of time and energy showcasing the skills that you hope to be a professional in one day. If that’s CS, I want you taking coding classes and building an app on Saturday. If it’s writing, I want you on the school’s newspaper and putting together that children’s book alongside your artist friend. I also want you to get As in the hardest possible classes related to this subject and study hard to max out any standardized tests related to the subject.

Sub-Class: This is the other thing you do. Might be dance, might be swimming, might be working at Target. Your sub-class will usually be -but does not have to be- a classic school extracurricular. But whatever it is, I want you to go for it. I like awards and Youtube videos and volunteer positions and internships – I want you to go as far and wide with this as you possibly can. Dare to be great.

Profession: Here’s where we can get weird. What do you like to do? Screw college, what are you into? I won’t accept playing video games or watching television. But what else? Do you like to paint maybe? Or grow chia pets? This is where your weird hobby can come into play. Read this piece. I want you to do this, too.

This is literally my job, and I am telling you that if a student came to me and had all three of those sections jacked up all over, we would 100% be in business. All I would have to do is get to know them, and then I would help them build narrative connections between the three + their personality + whatever else they had going on, and it would work.

The key would have to be that this student had gone for each as hard as he or she could. I want the future doctor to have worked at a hospital and to have done lab research, and if she could have cured cancer, that would be great. And because she swims, I want her competing and winning at every damn swim event in the state. I also want her training little kids to swim for free on Saturday and working as a lifeguard each summer. And because she was the one student who actually took my advice to start a podcast on the medical benefits of swimming with her friend, we could get her into Stanford.

(Someone, anyone, please start a podcast with a friend. It can be about college, sports, local school gossip, serial killers, or anything else you care about and want to chat about. Put it out every week, have a website for it, and get it to 100 weekly listeners, and I will happily join for an episode to talk about anything you like. THEN YOU WILL GET INTO COLLEGE BECAUSE YOU STARTED A PODCAST AND THE BOOMERS WHO READ THIS SHIT WILL LOVE IT.)

Now, I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend you enjoy all three of these “spikes.” I want you to go as hard as possible, and that’s going to be a lot easier if you enjoy the concept itself. If you’re a Frosh, I would prefer you to jump ship entirely than spend/waste so much of your time and energy on something you hate. But if you’re a junior/senior, Iono. I think I’d tell you to suck it up and keep going. You can quit the second you get into schools. If it involves your major, my honest advice would be to play a good little soldier and apply with the background you have, then switch to another major you don’t hate as soon as you get there.

This all sounds pretty cutthroat, right? It is. I know what it takes to get into top schools. It’s really hard, you guys.

But here’s the fun part: I don’t want or need anything else.

I mean, it would be cool if you had a personality. And A’s in other courses that were fairly-competitive. And if you liked Pokemon or something. We could and would write about all that, too. But that stuff I find comes naturally. I never need to force students to be fun, playful, or to like what they like. I’ve had too many teenagers be remarkable and different and amazing with no coaching at all to believe that it doesn’t come naturally. What I need to do is direct their limited focus.

And that’s why I think the concept of “being well-rounded” sucks and is a meme. I tend to really, really dislike bad advice. Especially advice that I feel like came from someone who meant well, but not well enough to think about what impact said advice would have in a real situation.

The meme version of well-rounded is: Do whatever makes you happy! The shitty real version is: do as many things in as many subjects as you can until your life falls apart. I see the tragic end-result of an elite student being well-rounded. He or she brings me what I refer to as the list of stuff. It’s their resume or EC sheet, and it just goes on and on and on. But there’s no theme. No story. All it says about the student is that they are inherently excellent and achieve a lot, seemingly for the sake of achieving it at all. Then I ask them about what matters the most to them and why, and they don’t know. And then they don’t get in where they want. And then their parents blame them.

It breaks my fucking heart you guys.

Please don’t be well-rounded. Please don’t let your parents make you do a bunch of shit that you don’t like, aren’t good at, or don’t see an obvious payoff that makes the time and energy required to seem worth it. I promise it isn’t. I promise that it won’t help you grow as a young person, and …more relevantly…I promise it won’t get you into the schools you want to go to.

I’d like you to do some research on burnout. It’s a concept that we, as a society, have deemed teens impervious to for some reason. FWIW, teenagers in 2009 weren’t actually depressed; we were just moody. Both concepts are insane and dangerous.

I’ve burned out at multiple points in my life. It didn’t just make me unhappy; it got in the way of my work and made me worse at the things I did care about. I’m terrified of burning out because I know it will lead to my professional catastrophe. I have worked harder this past calendar year than at any other point in my life. I’ve been stressed, haven’t slept well, and been occasionally terrified that nothing I was trying would work. But I have not burned out. Not once. I’m still stressed and can’t sleep, but I am so thrilled to be alive and love getting to work with my teens over Zoom every day.

(I call them my Zoomers!!!)

The difference is I have goals and motivations, and that I love what I have to do. That is my personal theory on burnout: That it is less about hours spent or the ability to tolerate sleepless nights and more about whether you find everything you are doing worth it or not. When you try to be well-rounded, you end up putting unnecessary time and energy into things you either don’t like or don’t care about. Then you burnout. Then the things that do matter and you do care about start to suffer as well.

So we’re gonna cut a lot of that shit out. No, you don’t have to learn a second instrument. Do something cool with the one you already enjoy. No, you don’t need to learn Italian. You’re applying Chemical Engineering; that’s stupid. Instead, be that magical starfish wizard. Have a few – carefully planned – passions and go. Gogogogogo.

THEN! Then you want to know what you can do? At some point, you want to combine your passions. Figure out a way to merge two or even all three of your “spikes” into a singular activity. Are your things math, volunteering, and knitting? You should be offering to look at the financials for the food bank you’re at for errors. You should also be knitting custom number puppets and using them to teach algebra at the local elementary school. You should be building half-ideas while you are still in high school. Then, when it comes to applying, your essay topics are already created for you.

And then go be a teenager. You are allowed to do absolutely anything you want. You wanna work at the mall? Go for it. Want to try baking bread? I love it. But do these things without a hidden agenda. There’s no ulterior motive of how good does this bread need to be? Do things because they sound fun, or you want to know if you can. Then, maybe, if you like it, keep going with it and see what happens. But you shouldn’t need to worry about it because you’re already working your ass off at the stuff that counts.

…I do not know if this will work. Or at least, I can’t prove it. I was not a Stanford Admissions Officer for three years in the 1990s, so I do not inherently know everything there is to know about modern college admissions. What I can say is that this is how I live my life. I showed up here six months ago and meant absolutely nothing. What I did know is that I can write better than everyone else, I’m funny, I analyze handwriting, I am willing to talk openly about my life to strangers, and that I am good with coming up with new ideas. Anyone of those concepts alone does not make me stand out. But what I did is actively combine the few things I knew I was great at as tightly and creatively as possible to make people notice me.

It worked. I run my own college consulting business now – entirely with Reddit students. It has made me happy and successful to the point that it doesn’t seem real. I am so unbelievably grateful to you all here that it does not seem real.

But it is. Because half-ideas works, yo.

If it worked for some guy in Palo Alto trying to jump-start his career, it will work for you trying to get into the schools you care about. You all read crappy advice telling you how important it is to “Stand out!” and “Showcase your passions!” Well, here’s how you actually can. I build systems, and this is my system for getting into college. I didn’t expect to be dumping my high-school consulting expansion thesis today, but here we are.

I really like this piece, except for the fact that I didn’t answer that kid’s question, like at all. Let’s try again.

Hi! I’m a rising sophomore. I’ve read most of your blogs, and I think they’re gold and make a ton of sense. But they also freak me out. How am I supposed to find a weird hobby? On top of doing well in school? And having amazing extracurriculars? And family stuff? And how am I supposed to have a unique life so I have “unique” half ideas? It’s so much work, stress, pressure, everything. I guess my real question is do you have any tips to manage the stress of applying to college or thinking about college in the future and trying to apply all the stuff I read on the internet and be a good, cool, passionate, driven person that gets enough sleep?

The way you achieve this is by thinking ahead.

First, keep your grades up. That matters most of all. All As will take you further than any weird three-pronged sea creature ever will.

Next, you’re starting your sophomore year. That’s still so much time to do what needs to be done. Take a step back, breath, and then begin to plan a bit. What’s your magic starfish? What’s the stuff to prioritize? What isn’t? Which of those activities do you not even enjoy? I think you should stop those activities that you don’t like and don’t feel contribute to your overall application strength directly.

That should buy you some more free time. Maybe dedicate half of it to doing more and better things that do matter. Be smart about it. I mean it that if you like to swim, you should be volunteering at a pool or a beach. It seems so simple as I write it, but in the chaos of the admission frenzy, it’s easy to lose track of the goal and go do a bunch of things that feel right without a valid reason why. I am telling you they’re not. Well-rounded is such a meme, you guys.

And with that other half? Do you. Download a calendar app for your phone. I use Google Calendar, and it works well except when I accidentally click a popup and get porn spam sent to it. I live through my calendar and have everything I must do graphed out in front of me at all times. It makes me waste zero time or energy wondering what I should be doing; I just do it. I once tried filling in social activities like “see mom” or even “write for fun” in the empty spaces, but that failed miserably. Instead, I punch in everything I must do and then know and respect that any blank time is mine. I try to build my weekly schedule to allow me as many decent-sized free blocks as possible. I plan and package my week so that every Friday night I have off to go on a date, and every Sunday I’m clear all day to watch football in bed with my cat.

If I didn’t, shit would just be everywhere, and I’d spend all week either working or awaiting working. I’m obsessed with efficiency. You should be setting your week so that you cut down on as many unproductive moments as possible. For example, you need to book that theoretical little-kid swim class either right before or right after your regular practice session. Doing so cuts out all the time and energy it would take to get ready and head to the pool a second time. That’s an extra 90 minutes each week you just took back. Actively work to create solutions like these, and you’ll be amazed just how much more time each week you can reclaim.

It is possible to be a successful, hard-working, high-achieving person without everything else in your life falling apart. I try really hard to be an example of that fact.

And weird hobby? Just have it on your mind. The fact that you are on this message board, asking a guy like me, and getting a Goddamn Masters thesis in return is an excellent sign for your future. I love this board so much because it’s somewhere for kids to turn who absolutely give a shit about their future, but need advice on what to do. A place like this didn’t exist when I was your age, and it pisses me off every day. Merely the fact that you are mindful of the type of content colleges will want to see in three years puts you so unbelievably far ahead of the game. You don’t need a hobby nownownow. But try some stuff. Do things you might typically pass off as not worth your time, if only because some random dude on Reddit gave you the scoop ahead of time. Then, if you like it, keep going.

I am not the person to ask how to get more sleep.

And lastly: good, cool, passionate, driven person is not a trait you train for. At least not that I’ve seen. Instead, every teenager I have ever worked with I have considered a good, cool, passionate, driven person. I think it comes with the territory of the type of young person who cares enough to contact a man off Reddit to help them get into college. But also it’s emblematic of a new generation of young people that are objectively incredible. One of my favorite lines is, “teenagers remain undefeated.” I do not think you will be the one to break up this perfect season.

– Mattie


Want more?  Check out my FREE strategy guide on the “Why College” essay.


Like this? You might also like:

How to Get Noticed and Stand Out During the College Admissions Process: Have a Weird Hobby

Why you Shouldn’t Start a Non-Profit (And What You Should Do Instead)

The One Key Difference Between My Students Who Did and Did Not Get Into T20 Schools

I wrote an original essay for every 2020-2021 UChicago Prompt. Here you go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *