The Downsides of High School Specialization

March 26, 2020

For many high school students, the ultimate goal is to be accepted into their top college. With the college application process, however, there often is an intrinsic pressure to specialize—that is, to concentrate on one specific field in order to develop a coherent narrative in one’s college application.
For this reason, some high schools around the U.S. have transitioned into specialized curriculums in which students are required to choose their “majors” in their freshman year. The Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey, is one such example, mandating freshmen to choose a major that determines their academic curriculum for the next four years. As The New York Times reports, the rationale for this decision is because “college admissions officers have said over the years that they favor students with expertise in particular areas since it demonstrates commitment and passion.” These specializations, however, should not be required, as they create the pressure of a permanent concentration.
Most high schools do not require that their students adhere to a curriculum centered upon a single area of study. Nevertheless, this pressure often manifests in the form of what kinds of electives one might choose or extracurriculars one might join. While this can sometimes lead to a slight boost in college applications, this artificial interest takes away from students’ ability to further their knowledge in other areas, leading to less fulfillment overall and a less balanced high school experience.
The clearest downside of specialization is that it discourages students from pursuing other interests that may not fit whatever path they have chosen. For example, if a student is set to specialize in a STEM field, they may fill their electives with only STEM classes. This takes away from their ability to pursue a possible interest in other fields, such as the humanities or music.
Furthermore, if that same student decides in the middle of their junior year, for example, that they want to explore a career in government, they may still choose to not take classes in civics in their senior year. Having spent the first few years of their high school career concentrating on STEM, they may analyze the sunk cost of their previous elective choices and continue to choose STEM classes that they are comparatively less passionate about, fearing that they may be wasting precious elective slots on classes that are not a part of their specialized focus.
While some may argue that specialization will allow for less time wasted on classes that are not necessary, this may not actually be the case, as it may result in students being less well-rounded. STEM students, for example, may not have much opportunity to learn necessary writing skills that a humanities student might be more skilled at and vice versa. As a result, the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that countries that encourage their students to specialize earlier often perform worse overall academically.
Jessica Tang (III) explains that “a person needs to be well rounded because they might want to change careers, which would be difficult if they only focused on one thing in high school. They would also be able to specialize more in college, once they are sure what they want to do.”
This imbalance in ability means that students may have to take more classes in college to fill in any knowledge gaps that may have occurred due to specialization in high school, causing them to spend time in college stuck in general education that could be better spent pursuing what truly interests them. Likewise, if they were to lose interest in their specialized field, they would either have to spend even more time and tuition filling in classes that they have not learned or be forced into a field and, as a result, a job that they no longer want to pursue.
Our teenage years are meant to be ones of self-discovery and growth. The pressure to specialize imposed on us by our increasingly-selective college application process often leads to a less fulfilling high school and college career by discouraging students from exploring all their interests during a time when they should be doing exactly that.

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