Imagine this college application: a student has excellent grades, plays sports, volunteers at the local animal shelter, likes to read, went to Mexico last summer, once built a doghouse, led a local theater troupe, and wants to go to med school. “Well-rounded” is one way to describe that application; “scattered and confusing” might be another. We like this person—we appreciate and identify with the things they do—but if I asked you ten minutes from now to tell me who they are and why you want them at your college, would you remember enough to say anything at all? How about five months from now, when you’re making an admissions decision?
No matter how you perform academically, how many extracurriculars you’re involved in, what classes you’ve taken, and what your interests are, you have one thing in common with everyone else: together, with your collective host of interests and accomplishments, you will form one great blob of prospective students. Your job as an effective applicant is to stand out from that blob. Now, the temptation is to have more
—more service hours, more leaderships positions, more extracurriculars, more tests scores, more hobbies. And all of those are important. The sheer volume, however, can end up working against you: when you pile your various achievements in an indiscriminate heap, you’ll probably end up crushing anything that smacks of your true voice and genuine personality. Your resumé becomes a laundry list that no one cares to read. The trick is to take all that quantity and sift out the defining quality. You’re looking for common threads.
Take, for instance, the student we looked at a moment ago. Perhaps she reviews her list and realizes that the common theme is service—she wants to help people. She works hard in school and uses that academic ability to tutor other students. She used her basketball team as a platform to raise funds for the animal shelter where she spends her Saturdays. Last summer she went on a service trip to Mexico, this year she decided to head up her theater group when it needed clear leadership, and now she wants to go to medical school so she can continue to help people professionally. Suddenly the girl who seemed nice enough is someone with whom we can actually identify. We can say, “I want her here because ___,” and we’ll have something meaningful to put in the blank. We may not be doctors or veterinarians or athletes or humanitarian workers, but we know what it’s like to help someone. That little piece of information tells us more about her than the whole list we read at the beginning.
This is what it means to market yourself to a college. You take all the pieces of your life and fit them together in a way that is clear and cohesive. You still say a variety of things about yourself, but you’ve given them a simpler context to fit all that variety into, and ultimately that will make you more memorable and more personal. And it’s easy to do—just start with …
1. Your Resumé
Your resumé is a great place to start looking for those common threads. Start by making a list of all the things you do, and then see where they divide naturally into categories. It will seem scattered at first—I had a list including short fiction, patriotic essays, a pet store art contest, vocal music, poetry reading, and fashion design, but after some thought these all fell fairly neatly into writing, performance, and visual art. Once you have your categories, structure your resumé to highlight the areas that are most important to you. This will stand out over and above a resumé that may in actuality be more impressive, but has been left unstructured and impersonal.
The next step is probably the most important: you need to choose a word that sums up all three of your categories. For our imaginary student, the word might have been “service;” for me, it was “story.” I realized that writing, performance, and art are all just different ways of telling stories. So find your word. Love it. It’s your new best friend.
Keep your word in mind when you’re writing college essays, and reference it often. Remember that your essays will be reviewed alongside your resumé, which will be reviewed alongside your recommendations—in short, nothing stands alone. They’re all pieces in the puzzle that has to give admissions officers an idea of who you actually are, not just what you’ve done. Take the time to make sure all the pieces fit together the way you want them to.
With my focus being on story, I used my college essays to tell stories—lots of them. Some serious, some silly, but all highlighting my own personality and interests. And honestly? A lot of them were a ton of fun to write. When you’re writing about things you care about, you tend to enjoy the process.
3. A Little Something More
You may want to throw in extra pizazz—to spice it up, so to speak. Spice away! What quirks or ideas do you have that you want to bring out in addition to your main theme? These extra tidbits can give life to your application, and help make you even more personable. I decided early on that I was going to be unconventional in my formatting and content (staying well within the rules and guidelines, of course). Whenever there was an opportunity to deviate from what I thought “most people” did, I took it—from constructing an essay around Beyoncé lyrics, to listing my GPA and test scores dead last on my resumé under the heading “I Can Jump Through Hoops.” (And I should say that I’m still waiting on quite a few admissions decisions, so whether or not colleges like unconventionality remains to be seen.) I also found myself writing about food rather more than I intended, so I ran with it, and food has now become a common theme in my application materials, to the point that I list “soup” alongside literature, painting, and musical theater in my areas of interest.
4. Be Yourself!
The real you will always make a better impression than a fake you who you think is more impressive. Put your best food forward, certainly, but don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t. Not every school in the world will want to accept a soup-eating storyteller, but chances are the ones that do will be the ones I want to go to. Be honest with yourself, and be honest about yourself. Colleges are looking for people, in the end, so don’t be afraid to put yourself out there as a real person and see what happens from there.