By Stacey Ross Cohen, author of Brand Up: The Ultimate Playbook for College & Career Success in the Digital World, CEO, Co-Communications, and TEDx speaker
As acceptance rates to selective schools plummet each year, the world of college admissions feels more competitive — and the margin of error more slim — than ever before. So what can you do to stand out from the ever-growing crowd?
To help students craft a winning application, I recently spoke with Dr. Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and former Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success at Trinity College.
1) Pursue your passions, not whatever is trending at the moment
It may be tempting to pursue whatever you think “looks good” on a college application, but Dr. Pérez recommends avoiding anything that isn’t true to your real passions. Instead of trying to game the system and join the trend of the moment, you should spend your high school years developing your own authentic talents.
Admissions officers can tell when you’re doing something for the application rather than for yourself. One dead giveaway? A padded Activities List shows neither advancement nor long-term dedication. It’s more impressive to hold the same no-frills tutoring job for all four years of high school as that displays work ethic and dedication — qualities admissions officers seek in their student body. The best advice is to pursue activities that you are passionate about. “These days, there’s so much overpreparing in the college admission process. You can easily tell when an app is not authentic and just reads like an adult has had a heavy hand,” Dr. Pérez says.
He notes one such example from his years managing admissions at Trinity. There is a myth that Ivy League institutions want you to save the rainforest in Costa Rica. So much so that even the New York Times called out this fad. These service trips abroad have become cliches highlighting more about your family’s ability to sponsor such a summer than your actual commitment to environmental science.
2) Keep the essay authentic to your voice
Beware of familiar essay tropes that may sound good on paper but don’t represent who you are. Common anecdotes from your everyday life can be more effective than some grand story about traveling in Europe (especially if it’s on your family dime). One of Dr. Pérez’s favorite essays during his time at Trinity was about a student working at a coffee shop — no fancy life story, just a “beautiful reflection on lessons learned,” he says.
One way to ensure your self-reflection makes an impact is to ask yourself the deeper “why” behind your essay topic, says Admissions Essay Guru Yelena Shuster. “To help them uncover their unique story, I like to have my students pretend they’re a guest on a podcast or being interviewed for a documentary,” she says. “It’s not enough to say you love kung fu, for example. What resonates on a deeper level is asking yourself why you love it, why you can’t live without it, what it’s taught you, and what are all the ways it’s changed your life.”
Be mindful of sounding like yourself when writing the essay. Don’t try to use a thesaurus or be tempted to ask for your parents’ help. “We can tell a mile away what a polished college application looks like,” says Dr. Pérez. “While it’s ok to let a few people review it, students should be selective in how many people see it. The more people you show your application to, the more you lose your voice in the process.”
3) Be smart about your online presence
Due to the amount of personal data online, managing online reputations is no longer optional. One hiccup, whether an awkward photo, unforgiving article or inappropriate post can haunt a student for years.
Don’t assume your “private” accounts will save you either. Dr. Pérez recommends erring on the side of caution. “When admissions officers are given a reason to look at social media, they will,” he warns. For example, years back, he received a tip about bad social media behavior from a college student hosting a high school student who didn’t positively represent the college. “This kind of information is difficult to ignore and requires additional research,” says Dr. Pérez.
Dr. Pérez wants every student to ask themselves two “burning questions” regarding their online profiles. One: “If I were to look at your social media account right now, would you be embarrassed?” And two: “Would you want this person to be your roommate?” If the answer is no for either, you need to scrub your social media presence.
Dr. Pérez has rescinded offers of admission for anything relating to sexual misconduct or assault, noting that “colleges want their students safe on campus.” Anything else unethical can also be grounds for rejection or even revoking an acceptance, as was the case in a recent example from Harvard, which rescinded acceptance offers for 10 students after discovering their participation in a racist “private” Facebook chat.
4) Do use social media to your advantage
The answer isn’t to hide on social media, either. Instead, think about how your online presence can enhance your application and build that portfolio authentically. If you’re the president of your school’s National Honor Society, for example, share that club’s profile page to show your involvement visually. Upload your concert recitals to YouTube. Start an Instagram account of your professional artwork. Create a Contently website showing your journalism clips. Like the rest of your application, the key is to be authentic rather than build a fake persona. If you’re doing something simply for the Likes, it’s probably not a genuine interest.
Even if these efforts won’t move the needle for your admissions chances, developing your online presence now will help you learn how to brand yourself, which is invaluable for your future job hunt after graduation. Dr. Pérez recommends following instructions for each school you apply to and taking advantage of tools built into the Common App experience like Slideroom.
5) Don’t forget to show “demonstrated interest”
To meet enrollment goals while still keeping admit rates low (and therefore more “prestigious”), the world of college admissions relies on students accepting their offers and matriculating in the fall. Because colleges can’t read minds, however, they started considering “demonstrated interest,” which refers to all the actions a student takes to show interest in a college including taking a tour, signing up for admissions events, and visiting with college representatives. Some schools do not take demonstrated interest into consideration, especially large public universities with high application volumes. Students may want to inquire about a school’s use of this information in the admissions process to make an informed decision.
This buzzword has become more important than ever thanks to the pandemic’s unsettling effect on enrollment. The reasoning is the more interest a student shows, the more likely they will enroll.
But not every student can afford the thousands of dollars it takes to tour universities across the country, and admissions officers recognize that. Luckily, there are many ways to connect virtually. These days, it’s as easy as signing up for admissions webinars and, for some sophisticated schools, even clicking through the website. “Demonstrated interest can help predict if a student is serious about coming,” Dr. Pérez explains. “If there are two contenders — frequent interaction versus zero contact — we would be inclined to take the student who expresses interest.”
Though the rules of college admissions seem to shift year after year, you can stay grounded by taking a deep breath, focusing on what you can control, and following the insider advice outlined above. No matter what happens in the next admissions season, the art of staying true to your passions, representing yourself authentically, and honing your brand online will serve you well past college and beyond.
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