The SPARC™ Approach to College Admissions
December 21, 2023 :: admisdev
The SPARC™ Method
To an audience that reads literally hundreds of application essays every year, your story is unlikely to stand out on writing skill alone. There are probably more published writers in the reject pile at Harvard than the admitted class (they need some scientists too!). Start from the assumption that your essay will be one of many in terms of topic and writing quality.
So how do you stand out? It’s not what you say, or even how you say it, but everything encoded in what you say. Think about it: If the school cared about what you wrote… wouldn’t they follow up at some point to make sure you actually took the major you said you would, or hold the beliefs you argued for, or joined XYZ university club you said you were interested in joining?
The reason no one ever follows up, is because after it fulfills its purpose, your essay goes into a permanent dead letter memory bank of “who cares?” The admissions committee is looking for applicants with maturity and the ability to excel on campus—a future student who has the gumption to navigate the abrupt transition to college. If you can recognize what traits the admissions committee is looking for, and show evidence of them, your essay will succeed.
Writing a College Essay That Works
The good news? You can convey the traits the admissions committee is looking for in an unlimited number of ways!
The bad news? You can convey the traits the admissions committee is looking for in an unlimited number of ways!
When applicants write what they think the reader wants to hear, it often doesn’t end well. Applicants who focus on certain achievements or values often don’t come across as they hoped to. For example, “I want to be seen as a leader, but I’m actually coming off as a pompous jerk who thinks an adult will be impressed that I organized a bake sale.” Or, “I want to be seen as valuing diversity, but the way I keep mentioning my friend’s racial identities is giving off a really weird vibe.”
Our approach is to not sweat values and achievements. You come to the essay writing stage of the application process having done certain things and holding certain values, and you likely can’t or shouldn’t change those at this point. Instead, the task is to frame your existing life story to show that you have desirable attributes for a university student: that “spark” of maturity and future success that gets the adcom excited.
We like to capture some of the many paths to a successful college essay through a framework we call––fittingly––SPARC:
These five occasionally overlapping ideas, taken together, capture the “special sauce” that makes one college application succeed while another fails. You don’t need to showcase all of these traits in your essays, but hopefully a few resonate with your view of yourself and give you a sense of how to pitch your candidacy.
It’s possible to have impressive achievements, but what if you never did anything unless someone asked you to? Are you the type of person who goes the extra mile, even when the task is already completed? Are you doing things because you’re propelled by some inner drive?
That ability to seize opportunities, or self-motivate, is absolutely essential on a college campus and beyond. In high school, if you’re falling behind, it’s the teacher’s job to notice that and help you get back on track. In college, it’s YOUR job to stay on track. You have to identify the problem, and you have to ask the professor for help (which most—but not all—will gladly give). Adcoms want to see that you’re the type of student who will handle this transition smoothly, because you already have a history of seizing opportunities in an independent, self-motivated way.
Here are some other essay angles to consider:
- When has something succeeded ONLY because you took it upon yourself to see it through to the end (when no one else would)?
- What’s a belief or ideal that many others nod in agreement to, but you took ACTION on?
- Was there ever a stalemate situation that you resolved by taking control?
- Is there an example of an achievement or win that was only made possible because you wanted it more than others?
- Have you ever cleaned up someone else’s mess, not sought credit for it, but did it because it simply needed doing?
Pursue is all about going after stuff that is just outside your reach. You need to give chase. And that requires putting in the work, with no guaranteed outcome.
You know what’s hard and has no guaranteed outcome? College. The worst thing an adcom can do is accept a person who then drops out part-way through. It’s their job to make sure that never happens, with tens of thousands of tuition dollars at stake. By showing persistence, determination and grit in your application essays, you can assuage these doubts.
Addressing this point is particularly important if you’re going to move somewhere far from home, are proposing to pursue a particularly tough program (i.e., pre-med), or have a history of quitting things or regularly changing your extracurricular activities.
Here are some other facets:
- Have you ever almost quit something? But––something compelled you to persevere?
- Ever start something you thought would be easy, found out it was much harder than you realized… and then kept at it?
- Have you ever developed a hunger for something precisely BECAUSE it would prove to be challenging?
Some folks are satisfied when an objective is met, or a question is answered. Others are restless, always leaning forward, never satisfied. It’s not enough to get the right answer, they need to know why. If they don’t understand something, they ask questions.
It’s this curiosity “gene” that is exciting to adcoms because it suggests a kind of intellectual restlessness. The Western college classroom is a place for debate, discussion, and disagreement. An essay that showcases you intelligently questioning conventional wisdom helps the adcom envision you as an active participant in their school’s intellectual life. While this kind of essay is valuable for everyone, it can be particularly useful for students coming from an academic tradition where classroom debate is not as encouraged.
Here are a few other approaches to get your creative juices flowing:
- Have you ever been told a truth, presented a fact, etc., but not been satisfied with it?
- Have you ever asked a question few others have asked about a particular subject?
It’s easy to “say yes” when there are no consequences to failure. The person who cares more about “the thing” than “not failing” is incredibly exciting. This person will be less vulnerable to vanity, peer pressure, etc. This is also the kind of person who might be willing to make the bold career moves (founding a company, discovering something no one else is willing to research, creating a work of truly revolutionary art) that can land an alumnus on the cover of a magazine and reflect well on the alma mater.
Of course, wanton or unwise risk taking could be a sign of immaturity. Generally the proof is in the results: a situation where the risks of failure were high, but not realized because you succeeded. Play up what could have gone wrong, then show that it ultimately didn’t, because you soberly and accurately evaluated the situation.
Consider these questions when brainstorming essay topics:
- Ever want something, but sense that you would more likely than not FAIL, and then… do it anyway?
- Have you ever risked your personal reputation for something you believed was right, or helpful to a greater cause?
- Have you ever been told by the majority of folks around you “don’t do it, take the easy road, there’s too much at stake” but you chose to ignore that advice?
It’s easy to build shelves when they come in a kit. It’s much cooler when you’re starting from scratch, and need to think laterally, build something from … the resources at hand, whatever they may be. Sometimes those resources amount to nothing. If you are able to succeed “wherever you are, whatever the circumstance, whatever your resources,” it bodes well. How well can you “create” when pushed?
A common trap is considering creativity solely the domain of artsy applicants. If you can paint, play music, or write excellently, that’s a great thing to highlight, but it’s not the only way to “create.” An engineering type could create a device, a coder could create an app, but many of the most successful “creativity” essays involve applicants creating new organizations, programs or IDEAS. This type of essay is powerful because it showcases your ability to have an impact on your community, and speaks to your ability to have an impact on your college campus.
Here are some questions to consider when writing your essay:
- Ever been deprived of certain “essential” ingredients for something, and figured out a clever solution with the resources at hand?
- Ever find your way out of a tricky situation where there was no obvious answer by thinking outside the box?
- Ever been stuck on a problem, and almost given up, but needed to solve it so badly that you found a new way to view the problem itself?
Use the SPARC method to find new angles
Hopefully some of the questions above have resonated with you. Pursue those ideas and imagine how they could map to a specific element of your experience. Worries like “do I have enough leadership?” or “did I win enough awards in XYZ to stand out?” are not worth considering. By the time you’re putting hands to keyboard on your application essay, it’s too late to make significant changes to your background. People who are not Olympians or valedictorians or published researchers get into top colleges every day. What matters is your ability to show your SPARC, whatever it may be.