Has someone ever told you to “just be yourself?” It feels like the dumbest advice ever, right? Who else are you supposed to be?
Don’t worry. We’re not going to tell you to “be yourself” in the college admissions process. We’ll modify that advice:
By show, we mean reveal exactly who you are in all aspects of the application, especially the essays. We’ll break it down piece by piece in order to show you how to stand out from your peers and be memorable in the eyes of any admissions committee.
First, we have one other important piece of advice: there is no Platonic ideal for the “perfect application.” If such a thing did exist, then all students would be striving to make their applications look exactly like this ideal. Admissions committees don’t want sameness, even if it’s high-quality sameness. They want your application to be unique to you. In other words, it can only be written by you because you’re the only one with your exact experiences, thoughts, beliefs, opinions, passions, and future plans.
Second, we’d like to offer a word about grades and standardized test scores. We’re lumping these two together because they are just numbers. Yes, it’s important that your grades and scores are both as high as possible if you want to be competitive in the admissions process. But they’re just numbers. They don’t tell admissions committees anything about you as a person. If John and Paul both have 4.0 GPAs and 2150s on their SAT, can’t we assume they’re similar applicants? Absolutely not! John might be an incredible candidate while Paul is mediocre at best. Now, Ringo on the other hand…
Here’s how to make sure your application is a standout!
1. Extracurricular Activities
These are huge in the admissions process, and students often underestimate their value. Simply put, if you’re active outside of the classroom in high school, colleges will assume that you’ll remain active as an undergraduate. That’s exactly what they want. They’re looking to ensure that their campuses remain vibrant, populated by students who are participating every day in clubs and organizations that enrich the school environment.
In your application, your activities should be a direct reflection of your interests. You should participate in activities that you care about, and you must devote significant time to them, too (leadership positions are great, of course). You don’t need to have a zillion activities either; a handful of meaningful ones is better than a laundry list of ones where your participation is cursory.
These are also a major factor in admissions, since they represent your chance to tell the school something about yourself that isn’t in another part of the application. This can be a meaningful experience, a unique worldview, a failure that shaped you, some combination of these three, or any stories from your life that you feel are relevant to your character. Also, resist the urge to be overly clever in your approach—i.e. writing your personal statement from the perspective of your goldfish, Harry—unless the approach is relevant to your narrative.
The best essays straightforwardly communicate a memorable story, and they do it with emotional resonance. A great personal statement, just like any effective work of art, makes a connection between the author and reader. As we said before, “show yourself!” Rather than simply making statements about your character or experiences, reveal everything through narrative. For example, instead of telling the admissions committee that you’re a well-rounded kid with a ton of community service experience, select a few stories that would illustrate both of these qualities. It’s a much stronger way to make a case for yourself.
Some schools try to interview every applicant, while others don’t put much emphasis on it at all. Whatever the case may be, the chance to interview should be seen as another great opportunity to enrich your application. A representative from the university, often an alumnus who is devoting his/her free time to the process, will invite you to have an hour-long chat about your candidacy. The best interviews flow like a conversation; an intellectual discourse between two people. If your interviewer keeps probing you with questions and you respond with one-word answers, then you’re not doing a great job representing yourself. The interviewer should leave with the impression that not only are you a great candidate for admissions, but that you’re an interesting and likeable person, as well.
As you get ready to dig into your applications, understand that the above advice is meant to help reveal who you are in the admissions process. So just repeat those two magic words to yourself like a mantra—“Show myself, show myself, show myself”—and you’ll be on your way to standing out and expressing exactly what makes you unique.
Need more help? Check out our post about submitting a stellar college application portfolio.
Need some help with a college application? That’s what we’re here for!