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College Applications: The Rise of the “Mini-Expert”

College Applications: The Rise of the “Mini-Expert”

Colleges admissions officers are increasingly interested in accepting students who are 'mini experts.' Let's take a look at what that means.

Lisa Speransky
Lisa Speransky
College Admissions
College Essay
Advanced Placement

In the latest webinar of our March series, we tackled how College Admissions has changed in 2020 and 2021. Our panelists highlighted the importance of what’s on your activity sheet -- you know, that list of everything you do inside and outside school that makes you a unique candidate.

Fox or Hedgehog?

In his famous essay, “The Fox and the Hedgehog,'' philosopher Isaiah Berlin separates great writers and philosophers into these two animal groups as a bit of a joke. The fox has knowledge about many things and isn’t confined to one idea, while the hedgehog has a single, narrow viewpoint and sees everything through that lens. So what’s better for the college application: being a fox or a hedgehog? You may be surprised to learn that it’s best to take the hedgehog’s approach. Now, don’t get us wrong: a high school student shouldn’t be narrow-minded or the world’s specialist in any one topic. After all, an important goal of a bachelor’s degree is to learn about yourself, grow as a person, and discover things that you may want to specialize in later. However, colleges are increasingly looking for students who are mini-experts, wanting to see that your curiosity or passion has led you to delve deeper into a particular issue, interest, or academic pursuit. Being a generalist is not a bad thing, but it doesn’t help admissions committees make a choice between you and another student.


Building a strong resume as a high school student isn’t limited to jobs and internships; it also includes clubs, volunteer activities, leadership positions, extracurriculars, and summer plans. The resume-building process should be a process of learning about yourself and eventually showing the outside world (read: college admissions committees) what you care about and what you’ve done on your own, outside of the mandatory school curriculum. The better you can show how you have followed interests and explored passions (even when they haven’t worked out!), the better your chances for a great college match.

The classes you choose are also an important part of your resume, particularly advanced courses. Whether it’s an AP class, a pre-college course, a summer intensive, or a free online class, showing admissions officers you took the extra time to seek out specialized knowledge and succeed at a higher level shows that you have a drive to learn.

Beyond courses, extracurricular activities help you continue to build on your theme. What you pursue should be authentic to you.

If you love playing video games, have you ever tried building your own on Hopscotch? And if you like that, take the next step by looking for an advanced coding or design class and/or an internship with a gaming developer.

Are you interested in medicine? One student we worked with decided to take an online science class at Columbia University during the pandemic when in-person classes were not an option. Already interested in medicine, the class stoked that fire and her teacher got her particularly excited about public health, which matched with her innate passion for helping others. Still in pandemic times, she became concerned about home-bound senior citizens. After some careful thought and planning, she started a small volunteer organization that helps elderly people book and travel to vaccine appointments. This volunteer leadership work then helped her land a summer internship at the New York City Blood Bank. She also reached out to a professor at a local community college for research opportunities, and he agreed to have her help in his lab. This is a great example of how one step in exploring your interests has a domino effect and more opportunities are born out of the first initiative. It’s also a great example of how even the pandemic didn’t stop this student from pursuing her passions and building a really strong resume as a result.

Reviewing a resume

Virtual Activities

The good news is that virtual extracurriculars have boomed during the pandemic as many in-person activities became impossible. And virtual classes, internships, and clubs are likely here to stay, which opens up many more opportunities for all students!

While doing your general college search and creating a list of schools that appeal to you, make sure you check if any on your list offer pre-college courses. They often do! While some competitive summer programs will return to in-person this summer and some deadlines will have passed, virtual pre-college courses often have later application deadlines and some are offered during the school year as well. For example, Tufts has a mini-Med School summer program virtually; Wake Forest has great pre-college summer programs in science, business, and medicine; Amherst is offering “Great Books” classes, etc. Don’t be discouraged by the high price tags of some of these courses. Need-based and merit-based scholarships are often available to those who dare to ask! There are hundreds of options available for any number of interests and we’re happy to point you in the right direction when it comes to your theme and budget.

Sites like Coursera also have a treasure trove of classes offered by universities around the world, and many are free! Whether you want to take “Beginner’s Excel” or something more esoteric, like Sports and Society offered by Duke University, free or low cost online classes are a great gateway to ‘advanced coursework’ and passion exploration. Remember that many of these classes are at a college level, so be ready to take them seriously!

Finally, we encourage you to make use of the plethora of webinars and tutorials offered by companies and organizations all over the world. A simple way to start your exploration is by searching for webinar topics on Eventbrite. Institutions like MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum (and many others) offer classes, internships, and councils for teens who are passionate about art, history, anthropology, or museum studies. If you love a particular museum or organization, make sure to search for opportunities on their web page. Come up with nothing? Don’t give us! Email them, and see if they’re thinking about adding a program or would be open to creating an internship for you. Don’t be afraid to show initiative; you never know where it will take you!

Virtual zoom meeting


Application essays now make up more than 50% of admissions criteria! Ready to write an outstanding college essay coached by one of our world-class tutors? Get the essay done.

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