As a recipient of the Boren study abroad scholarship, I had an opportunity to visit Washington D.C. and have a private meeting with a congressional representative.
And since I’m from Colorado, I had the chance to speak to Jared Polis, the current Governor of Colorado! But at the time, he represented Colorado’s 2nd congressional district.
Jittering with anxiety and excitement in equal doses, I eagerly asked him and his staffers for career advice. What is your number one career advice for a college student like me?
I was expecting advice about following my passion, networking, or stepping out of my comfort zone – you know all the usual suspects when you speak to an accomplished person.
But to my surprise, their advice was to figure out whether you want to be a generalist or a specialist and stick with it.
This advice completely caught me off guard but became a question that would pop up over and over again as I embarked on my scholarship journey. Do you want to be a generalist or a specialist?
Before I dive into how picking your strategy as a generalist or a specialist helps you tackle your scholarship applications, let me just take a step back and explain to you what a generalist and a specialist actually is.
The best way to explain this is through an analogy of the Swiss Army Knife and a heavy-duty pocket knife.
The Swiss Army Knife will be the example of a generalist. It is a beautiful combination of a variety of tools in addition to a blade and is the ultimate example of versatility.
It can be used in a variety of situations and provide you with a compact version of many of the things you may need in an emergency.
But the downside is, it is a generalist. So even if it can be used in many different situations, it’s not an ideal tool for important and specialized needs.
For example, if you need a pretty heavy-duty blade to cut through seat belts or to help you in self-defense, a Swiss-army knife is probably not the best tool for the job.
A military-grade pocket knife, on the other hand, might be a better bet in situations where you need a weapon or a specialized tool for a rescue operation. In this situation, a good pocket knife is your specialist.
In the right situations, a specialist is incredibly difficult to replace.
So back to the million-dollar question, which strategy (a specialist or a generalist) is the best strategy to use for scholarship applications?
It turns out, it’s a mix of both. But I’ll just focus on the advantages of being a specialist in this blog.
Strategy 1: Specialist
It became increasingly obvious to me how powerful being a specialist really is when I started applying to more and more scholarships.
First of all, by aiming to be a specialist, it forced me to do some deep introspection and figure out what exactly I wanted to be. That then helped me free up my time and solely devote my energy to becoming what I wanted to be.
For example, early on I knew that I wanted to pursue a career related to Asia. But Asia is really broad, it includes East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia and it’s really difficult to be an expert on all of Asia.
So slowly and surely, I started to narrow my focus onto only US-China Relations and that helped me gain clarity into what I actually wanted to do with my career.
Second of all, being a specialist can give you an advantage in looking more impressive on your application. And if you think about it, it’s just common sense.
If you were able to narrow down your focus, then you can invest way more time and energy in that specific area – giving you an advantage when it comes to achieving something more notable.
And that has a compounding effect the more focused you become.
Take this for example. Before I decided to focus on pursuing a career related to US-China Relations, I was a bit all over the place. I took classes related to Central Asia, the Korean Peninsula (North and South Korea), the Vietnam War, etc.
And while that gave me a good amount of general knowledge, that was exactly all it was. It was all super general.
Everything I knew could be pulled up immediately on a Wikipedia page – giving me absolutely no edge when it came to applying to internships.
But when I decided to just focus on US-China Relations, everything changed. The more I understood about US-China Relations was the more competitive I became in the internships, student exchange programs, and research opportunities related to that field.
All of a sudden, I was accepted into IMUSE which was a joint student program hosted by Harvard University, Tsinghua University, and Peking University – two of the top universities in China.
That then opened up a whole bunch of other doors for me. I got accepted into the International Scholar Laureate Program (ISLP) to China, CIEE’s Advanced Chinese Studies program at Peking University, the Boren Scholarship to study in China, and even an internship with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers to learn about how to publish textbooks related to Asia.
Moral of the story: it can pay huge dividends being a master of just a few things than to mediocre in a lot of things.
With so many achievements pointing in the same direction, your resume practically screams what you stand for. And that level of consistency and depth will make you extremely memorable in any application you submit.
For instance, when I started applying for study abroad scholarships in my sophomore year, I quickly became known as the “China girl” or the “future China diplomat.”
I didn’t need to put in too much effort to make clear what I represent because my entire track record speaks for itself.
With all this said, however, there are times when being a complete specialist can backfire on you. So as much as I stan becoming a specialist, I would advise you to always try to diversify your portfolio as well.
Which, I’ll tell you more about in my next blog.
I’ll catch next week! Ciao for now!