Colleges don’t want generalists in their schools. Colleges want a whole class of well-rounded specialists. For homeschoolers who want to go to a top college, they will need to specialize. Here are some tips for helping your kid find a specialty.

Don’t use curricula.
Serendipity has a lot to do with specializing. But you have to plan for luck. You won’t be lucky if you overload your kid with things you think they might be interested in. You have a much higher chance of landing on a specialty if the kid is doing things every day that he picked, not you.

It’s no coincidence that the kid I forced into violin wants to be a scientist and the kid who begged to play cello wants to be a musician. Yes, kids should try a lot and experience a lot, but it should be mostly what they choose.

Recognize which specialties need to happen early.
In the string instrument world, the top teachers choose their students by the time the students before they are teens. Gifted gymnasts and skaters are identified even earlier because girls, especially, will age out too quickly if they are not identified early. If you don’t want the pressure of a focused, competitive childhood then don’t have a kid think about spending their time in these arenas.

Find the best coaches.
In every specialty there is a typical path kids take to get to the top. Sure, there are exceptions, but this is a game of odds, and your kid has better odds with a better coach. So assume a typical path.

Take baseball, for example:  The scouts are clocking fastballs of young boys, and if you don’t have impressive speed in junior high, you can’t get access to the best coaches. Jeff Passan, author of the book The Arm: Inside the Billion Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports, shows how we have enough data to know how to make a pitcher a 100-mph pitcher. But you have to get access to the “propeller heads” for that coaching.

It’s never too late.
Even in business, getting high-profile mentors to shepherd you though the system is a huge advantage. So if your kid hasn’t found a specialty by the time they are nearing college applications, try focusing on the sort of thing that mainly attracts adults: Business.

In all of business, there’s a prejudice that younger people are more exciting to mentor, (in many cases the prejudice is blatant and unapologetic,) which means kids have to start fast right out of the gate if they want to get access to top mentors in business.

Try looking backwards.
Often a kid has identified their specialty through their actions, even if they are not so clearly articulated. I have been writing in a journal since I was seven years old. By the time I was applying to college I had filled 15 handwritten volumes. Was I a specialized writer? Yes. I was. But I had no idea how to use that specialty, so I spent years drowning in college courses on political theory. I figured out how to use my specialty in my late 20s. Sometimes, all kids need is an adult who understands them to uncover the specialty that’s already there.

Fake it.
My kids do a lot of farm work. But I’m not sure they’d be called farm kids where we live. The kids where we live think my kids are city kids. And the kids in the city have no idea what life is like on a working farm.

I think the kids would probably qualify as third culture kids, and they don’t feel they are farm or city. But for college applications, they could be farm kids—the most knowledgeable about goats, and the best at saving a late piglet from an early snowstorm.

And maybe all kids who are specialists are really faking it. Because no one knows what will happen when they are adults. We are all faking when we assume that a specialized childhood makes a safe path through adulthood. There are no safe paths. Which is why college is probably irrelevant to most of the kids who are specializing to get in.

12 replies
  1. Anon
    Anon says:

    Just me but I prefer well rounded. All parents choose how to educate their kids. I respect your choices. You seem like an awesome mom.

  2. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I wonder if the obsession with gaming college admissions could become as deleterious as forcing standard curricula.

    “No, little Oliver. You can’t do that! It’s not unique enough!”

  3. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Here are four things that I have noticed that top universities and high profile employers want after several years of doing my own research:

    -Curiosity
    -Empathy
    -Conviction
    -Resourcefulness

    I have actually seen less of the generalist vs specialist argument lately. Any reasons why?

    • Betsy
      Betsy says:

      I’ve been listening to the podcast Getting In about the college application and admissions process and the experts (from Stanford, Princeton, UVA) talk a lot about service and volunteer work. If you are interested in college admissions even slightly, I think it’s fascinating.

  4. Kay
    Kay says:

    I remember reading somewhere about how most professional hockey players were born based on when the kindergarten cut off month was. The older the student was compared to the rest of their grade level, the more likely they were to become specialized in hockey because they always had the advantage of size. That gave them constant positive feedback, more interested coaches, and all kinds of advantages.

    Fortunately, I imagine that’s not a problem most of the children in this blog will run into. I just thought it was strange how such an arbitrary looking thing could distort everything so much in the future.

  5. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    Of course I don’t think college is a worthy long-term goal. It MAY be an intermediate step (at considerable cost: time, money, and opportunity) on the way to a legitimate long-term goal, but let’s put that quibble aside for the time being.

    I believe the choice between being “well-rounded” and a “specialist” only applies to school kids who are subject to extreme time/freedom deprivation.

    If one avoids the biggest homeschooling mistakes, there is plenty of time and energy to raise extremely well-rounded children.

    As far as becoming highly specialized in one area….I think the best approach is to give our kids encouragement, resources, and TIME to cultivate high-quality hobbies. That’s it. Nothing complicated – although many parents struggle mightily to eliminate time wasting.

    For example, my son recently got interested in “cubing” – as in solving the Rubik’s cube. Well I took him to a cubing convention/tournament (which he found online)….and I have now, just over the past 2 months, bought him nearly 20 different types of “cubes” to solve.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I don’t know how one can homeschool and not end up with a kid who is highly specialized in something (regardless of the value we put to that skillset). One of my school aged kids spends the majority of her time on math and science topics while the other one is heavily focused on performing arts.

      I like the idea of my kids coming out of this opportunity to homeschool as well-rounded specialists. We have a “buffet” of options and sample as much variety as possible. While still allowing them all the time to pursue their passions with full support from us.

  6. Sophia
    Sophia says:

    I have four kids that range in age between 9 and 15 and I am obsessed by this topic. Three books that have helped me are “Mastery” by Greene, Be So Good that they Can’t Ignore You by Newport and recently “Deep Work” also by Newport. (titles might me off but you can look it up)

    Penelope, I’d love to read more from you about how students can stand out and the skills they need. I have one child in particular who is not a traditional student (Aspie like) but we keep her in school because we think she needs the social skills to be around people not of her choosing.

    • HomeschoolDad
      HomeschoolDad says:

      Sophia,

      Don’t you think that “forced association” might be a bad thing? We want to raise leaders, not conformists. In the real world no one is forced to be friends with, tolerate, or work with those not of our (or their) choosing.

  7. Salvador
    Salvador says:

    What about the parents who are angry? The children don’t come up to them and say it’s ok mom, I know you angry but I still love you! Instead I get a reply from telling my child how much I’d love a garden for us, so I can water the veggies, go out and spend an afternoon working in it and reap the benefits of growing my own vegetation. His reply ” I’m not interested in a garden!” So I asked his if he was interested in eating vegetables or understanding that the vegetables that are put in front of him come from that garden? Maybe he want to try famin for a day then discuss whether he is great full for the local garden and the groceries on the table!

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