The college application season is upon us. Through the years as I’ve worked with students as a college consultant, I never fail to be amazed at what wonderful people they are. They are each so unique and have done interesting things. Yet, as I look over the list of activities they initially send to me or read their first essay, nothing appears to be distinctive about them. I see little to separate them from the other thousands of young people with good grades and big dreams.
It’s not a problem with the kids, it’s a problem with the way they have presented their information to me. The activities are just a jumble of information that is not very clear and the essay is a shallow attempt to be clever that tells me nothing about the student at all. The problem is they have not done a good job of sharing their story.
Let’s look at it from a college admission officer’s viewpoint. Test scores and grades convey important, but very narrow information. Any top college could probably fill their entering class several times over with applicants whose scores and grades are equal to or better than your children’s. So they seek, through the rest of the application, to get to know the student. What is it that sets your child apart and makes them a good candidate for admission? What about them will help the admissions officer select them to build an interesting class?
Telling our Story
This is where telling our story becomes very important. The burden of proof rests on our children to fully explain themselves to harried and fatigued admissions officer through the various components of the college application.
To do this, we must carefully choose a few main ideas about them and communicate them fully. So, before writing essays, filling in the blanks on applications, asking for letters of recommendation, or interview, our student needs to do some thinking.
What is your background? Is it unusual? Why are you the way you are? How has it forged you into the person you are today?
Are there unusual circumstances in your life? Do you homeschool in an isolated location and have few financial resources? Have you been responsible for caring for your elderly grandmother (and as a result not had time to pursue many extracurricular activities)? Has your parent had major health problems that have caused a re-focusing of your energies?
What are you passionate about? Do you build cars or computers? Do you compose music in the wee hours of the morning? Do you volunteer at the homeless shelter every chance you get? Do you get an adrenaline rush organizing huge events and plugging others into the leadership structure? Has your poetry been published?
What are your goals or what do you dream of accomplishing? Do you want to be a doctor in the African wasteland? Do you want to be a film director or a college professor? Does it thrill you to work in a lab searching for the cure to cancer?
Then take a look at your activities. What have you contributed? What have you learned? What leadership roles have you played? What things have you created?
Hopefully, you’ve had work experience. What were your job responsibilities? How many hours a week did you work and what did you use the money for? What did you learn? Did you have any unusual jobs?
Atypical jobs can help you stand out in an admission officer’s mind. For example, my son had worked as a ring master for an auction house. He also managed the fruit and vegetable production, helped care for a 75-head cow herd, and maintained 8 miles of fence and ¾ mile of irrigation pipe on a 325 acre farm and ranch. You can bet that Harvard didn’t have many other math geeks that fit that profile.
Distilling our Talking Points
Now we need to take all we’ve gleaned from the above questions and figure out what is unique about our student and how we want to convey that to the schools. We also want to show what he can contribute to the college. Our students need to be able to communicate this well in both written and verbal format.
I train my clients to have those three or four topics always at the forefront of their minds and to make sure they communicate those points in all phases of the application:
· college resume
· personal essays
· short answer questions
· activity section
· school documents
· letters of recommendation
It is quite a bit of work, but eventually we get to the talking points that will set the student apart. It is so rewarding to capture the student’s uniqueness in a story that fully conveys what makes them tick.
If your student just finished their junior year, it is time to be thinking about how to tell their story with the college application.
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