What Makes Strong College Candidates? [Brainstorming Exercise]

Encourage your high schoolers to identify and explore their strongest qualities in preparation for the college application process.

Students Talking | Admissionado

Your house is on fire and you’re watching it burn. The fireman delivers great news…

You have just enough time run back inside to save one (only one) item: no time to deliberate… (off you go). You rush inside and grab the first item you see, knowing that if you hesitate for even a second, both you AND that object won’t survive. You run back outside to safety, having saved a necklace that’s worth some money. Congrats.

But now let’s add a twist. Replay that scenario, except that before the fireman sends you back inside, he lists three choices for you:

  • a soup ladle
  • that necklace
  • the amulet given to you by your great, great grandfather (something generally considered irreplaceable, to be cherished and passed along, etc.)

Given those options, you will probably have a crystal clear sense of what the most important object is (certainly among those three options). Imagine learning after the fact that you could have used your ONE chance to save the family heirloom, but instead spent that chance rescuing a material possession that everyone knows is ultimately replaceable.

It may plague you for the rest of your life… “if only I had known what my options were ahead of time, I could have made a stronger choice.”

Make it Count

A student’s college application comes down to making a one-time impression on an admissions committee. Much like saving an object from a burning fire, your student has ONE opportunity to get it right. Imagine spending all those years on homework, projects, extracurricular activities, earning the position of “president” of clubs, achieving greatness in sports and music, only to end up putting together an application that features the SECOND– or THIRD– or FOURTH-BEST version of his profile!

The building is on fire, folks. Make the moment count.

Prioritizing Profile Strengths To Develop Stronger College Apps

It’s crucial for your student to understand his assets well. They need to know “what their options are” so that they can make informed decisions about which ones to prioritize. Knowing that list ahead of time allows them to race inside, grab the “best” item, and return to safety knowing that made the absolute best choices possible.

But with so many achievements, talents, and experiences to choose from, how does a student know which things to include on a shortlist? And how to prioritize them?

Enter: Admissionado’s “Greatest Hits” Recipe

Much like the burning building analogy, you’ll make smarter decisions about what MATTERS by starting with a focused list of solid possibilities, and then a strategy for how to prioritize that list. Consider the following exercise:

1. Start by having your student write down his ten best assets:

And let’s define “assets” as achievements, talents, unique personal traits, life experiences, skills, etc. Some examples: Valedictorian; 4.0 GPA; All-State Athlete; President of NHS; 2nd Place in State Science Fair; Published Short Story; Summer Experience at Shipping Yard in Nova Scotia; Won Competition X for Trumpet; Fluent in six languages; Read two books per week; Is made up of fourteen distinct nationalities; Scored above 2100 on SAT; and so on.

Initially, you can make as long as list as you’d like, but ultimately pick the ten best (the ten most obvious, impressive, interesting ones according to his best judgment).

2. Now, rank this list.

This is YOUR STUDENT’S opportunity to weight the items according to which things THEY are personally most proud of, passionate about, etc. Tell them to rank the items honestly from 1 to 10 (1 being their most cherished).

3. Now, in a separate column, assign one more grade (or “weight”), according to the following scale:

a. 1 point = No one else on Earth can lay claim to this.
b. 5 points = Very few students have achieved/done/experienced this.
c. 10 points = Many other applicants are likely to have achieved/done/experienced this.
d. 15 points = Virtually every competitive applicant will likely have some version of this.

4. Now, multiply both numbers

This is where it gets fun. You’ll end up with a third column (the product of that multiplication). Treat this is as “Final.” Re-rank this “Final” list from lowest to highest number. Pay close attention to the TOP FIVE items on this list.

These are most likely the facets of your student’s profile you will want to broadcast most prominently to the college admissions committee. A beginning point for establishing the “Greatest Hits.”

It may look something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 11.40.53 AM

5. Now, focus on the FIVE top results

At this point, focus on the highlighted items (in green, in the example above). These are most likely your student’s “Greatest Hits” as far an admissions committee is concerned. Your student will want to digest essay prompts in ways that allow them to show off the stuff that’s captured in that green box. When listing activities, they’ll want to feature items that are in that green box (and possibly leave off some items that are NOT). In interviews, they will want to dip into that green box, as source material for many of their answers.

It’s better that they leave a college admissions committee with a sharp sense of a few things, rather than a fuzzy sense of many.

This exercise is not foolproof, of course, but it is a useful tactic to get a sense for “what makes me a strong candidate.” Students who develop a clear picture of what makes them standouts are better able to focus their applications. This sharpens the pitch, it sharpens a reader’s sense of who the candidate is, and it sharpens the connection that results between reader and applicant.

Once the adcom develops a “connection” to the author (your student), that’s when momentum builds toward advocacy, and eventually an “admit.”

5 Ways To Help Your First-Generation College Student