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You Can't Grow Taller But You Can Stand Straighter: The College Application

Imagine you walk into a job interview. You are met by an assistant who leads you directly over to a measuring stick.  “You are 5’6” the assistant says. “We don’t consider hiring anyone unless they are at least 5’8”.

Fortunately, most colleges in the U.S. use some degree of what higher education calls holistic review.  This means that colleges consider many different elements of the student’s profile as they evaluate the their candidacy for admission and institutional financial aid.

Each student is a complex mix of qualities, skills, values, and interests that have attached themselves to details, memories, events, and moments. By the time they are filling out their application, they have generated most of their raw material, except for first semester grades and maybe an additional test score.  So how does the student tease out the pieces that pack the most punch?  In other words, even if they can’t grow taller on their application, how can they maximize it to stand straighter?

The Common Application has spaces to record both information that is not in your control (we will call this part A) and those things that can be interpreted (we will call that part B). In part A you have demographics, GPA, class rank, test scores, and course rigor. In part B you have the additional information section, activities and honors list, letters of recommendation, demonstrated interest, and the college essays.  In some cases, schools will open the door even more to creativity and self-advocacy through offering an interview, or the opportunity to include a video or digital files of your best moments and achievements. Following are some student tips for making the most of their application. (Who wants to leave money on the table?)

For an application to help you stand up straighter, you need to know what you stand for in the first place.  Establish your own mission statement. What drives you? What would you fight for?  What motivates you to make the choices you do and pursue the goals you have. What motivated you to create those goals in the first place? These qualities that drive you are your values.  They are at the foundation of what makes you, you.  You may be motivated by success, humor, family, beauty, competence, or religion.  You may find meaning in social change, order, freedom, or autonomy.  You can find a list of values here.

Once you have identified your top 10-12 values, the best way to make sure the application is doing its job is to pause occasionally and do a values scan. Is your activities section simply a list of job titles and their dates, or can you use those 150 characters to tell admissions some specifics that you contributed to the club, activity, or job, or things you learned through your involvement? Use active verbs to describe your specific tasks and accomplishments and focus on the details that may prove a certain value you keep.  If you were a volunteer youth soccer coach, did you motivate team spirit, encourage the timid players, solve conflicts between players, research best practice methods? Each of these shows a value you live out uniquely, and will make your experience as a volunteer youth soccer coach different from the other applicants who have listed volunteer soccer coach on their activities section.

I include letters of recommendation in Part B.  I have found that the student can have an impact on the quality of the letter of recommendation by providing the teacher with ample time and ample relevant and personal information.  Decide which teachers you want to request from and ask them before the start of your senior year, to beat the rush when everyone else asking them.  Provide them with a questionnaire that you have filled out yourself, including things about yourself that you want them to know or remember. My students have questions they need to answer for the teacher that include: What's your current life dream? (Could be your ideal job, ideal environment, etc. Essentially, what/who do you want to be after college?) What do you love to do, learn or discuss outside the classroom? (This is also an opportunity to explain why you pursue the activities on your resume.) In which community (be it your friend group, your family, your team, club, etc.) have you made an impact? Tell me the story.  What are 5 words or phrases you would use to describe yourself?   Do you have a life philosophy? If so, what is it, and why did you adopt it?  These questions provide the student with a neutral platform to communicate their values to their teacher, who can then accordingly communicate these in their letter of recommendation.

 The additional information section is another overlooked opportunity to stand straighter.  Your transcript may show that you did not take AP Chem, even though you want to major in Earth Sciences.  What it doesn’t show is that your school, because of limited resources, dropped its AP Chem class and there was no other comparable class offered.  Your activities list may show an impressive commitment to wrestling through sophomore year but not junior year. It doesn’t show that your family needed you to take on the responsibility of picking up your little brother from daycare at the time of practices.  Your work experience may show you job shadowed in a assisted living center for a few months, but it doesn’t show that one summer you put together a reading list and initiated your own research project revolving around long term care and dementia. The additional information section, when used wisely, can transform apparent inconsistencies and moderate achievements into unique and admirable qualities, values, and victories they wouldn’t otherwise know about.

The college essays are the ultimate way to show what you are made of.  The personal statement allows 650 words to tell your story.  The angst lies in the question “What story will I tell?” Will I use overcoming a challenge to show what I am made of? Will I string together different moments in my life to illustrate many different sides of me?  I will be addressing the personal statement and supplements next month, so tune in (spoiler alert, you don’t always need to write about a challenge!)

The Common Application is rich with opportunities for students to communicate the skills, values, interests, and qualities that will make them an asset to colleges. There is no excuse to leave money on the table.  If you want personalized coaching in standing up straighter on your application, check out my “Essay and Application Package” 

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