Wouldn’t it be great if our teens picked a career in ninth grade and followed that clear trajectory throughout high school and college, ultimately landing that matching dream job? Whew! That would be relaxing. But guess what? Most teens (and lives) don’t work that way. And neither does admissions.

When I first met Thomas in the middle of tenth grade, he had no idea what he wanted to be when he grew up. He had a vague sense that he wanted to be an engineer and was also seriously devoted to creative writing. An advanced math student and first-place winner in a regional nonfiction writing contest, he was demonstrably gifted at both.

Thomas and his parents were worried that his application lacked focus and definition. Could he develop all of his interests and still be attractive to top schools? Absolutely!

Thomas and I proceeded to design a plan that featured it all. In the next couple of years, he moved around among his passions, developing his writing by attending humanities and creative writing summer programs while concentrating more on STEM during the school year. By eleventh grade, he’d developed an interest in computer science and defined it as his chosen engineering field.

Embracing this unconventional combination of interests served Thomas well. Now attending Cornell University and studying both computer science and creative writing, he was also accepted to Haverford, Vassar, Oberlin, Wesleyan, Williams, Amherst, Tufts, NYU, Carleton, and the University of Rochester. Winding works!

As it turns out, colleges appreciate students who try things out and present a diverse set of curiosities in their application. So even if letting your teen explore in a more open-ended way feels uncomfortable in the short run, it’s actually beneficial long term. Admissions is more creative and flexible than you think. In fact, in our experience, the most effective strategy is to claim at least two interests in a college application.

Top schools like Stanford regularly accept undergraduate applicants with no clear professional goal. They are more interested in who your child might be as a future adult in general. Will this person achieve great things in a powerful but respectful and socially responsible way? How does this person make difficult decisions or face unexpected setbacks?

That’s why I knew that Rose, now a rising sophomore at Stanford who started out knowing only that she was not interested in a STEM career, would still be very successful. A highly creative and intellectually curious person, Rose pursued her interests in poetry, conceptual fine art, international journalism, book publishing, and more! Her admissions reader loved it, and even remembered her innovative admissions essay devoted to the meaning and value of the semicolon in poetry (and life).

Being accepted to your dream school for exactly who you are at the time of applying provides an inner calm like no other for student and parent alike. It is a form of recognition that helps build personal strength in a young adult just embarking on their own life journey. Even though it may seem contrary to popular logic, the winding road to college is the real winner.

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