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College Admissions

Preparing Your Strongest College Application

Summer may not be over, but smart high school seniors who will be applying to college in a few months are already working on personal statements. At a time when competition is intense, students need to make a compelling case for admission, and that’s not something you can rush.

I have never liked the term “packaging,” which makes students sound like products to be marketed, but the truth is that putting together a strong college application means thinking about how to sell yourself.

Strong applications weave together a student’s values, goals, passions and experiences to illuminate the themes in that person’s life. It may sound intimidating, but start by looking for common threads in the activities you’ve pursued. How do these activities illustrate your beliefs about yourself and the world? This kind of self-examination will enable you to present yourself in a clear and personal way.

For example, my student who loves theater will have loads of experience in school plays and community theater, as well as many acting classes. But on college applications, we will make sure she integrates her college coursework in psychology, which enhances her understanding of characters.

Even someone who has diverse interests can find ways to integrate them in an essay. Another student, who loves both science and politics, discussed the interaction of public policy and scientific developments. His experience as a leader in his school’s science and debate clubs supported his stated passion for these subjects.

The application is your chance to come alive as a person and to communicate your best qualities. Admissions officers love to see intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm, self-confidence, and initiative. Likeability helps too, as they will be thinking about how you might interact with other students in the residence hall. Readers are human and they get more excited when they feel a bond with a student. Part of it is luck. If you write about the experience of growing up as an identical twin, and the admissions officer who reads your application is also a twin, there’s an instant connection. But there are ways to tap into universal feelings, and once you win over an admissions officer, you have an advocate, which is especially important at schools where decisions are made by committee.

Knowing yourself is the first step. It’s also important to research the colleges so that you can point out why you are a good match. Many students write a generic essay and modify it slightly for different colleges, but the more you personalize your application, the better. Putting in the effort to investigate each school is what will set your application apart.

Researching a school means more than glancing at a list of majors and reading a guidebook description of student life. Look through the catalog and see what courses you’re excited about. If you love creative writing and you’re applying to University of Pennsylvania, make sure to let them know you’re excited about the Kelly Writers House. If you can’t find any classes that sound interesting, you probably shouldn’t be applying to that school.

If you’re serious about a college, start reading the school newspaper and track down the alumni magazine. Find out what research projects the professors in your major are involved in, and if one sounds fascinating, you might even contact the professor to see if there are opportunities for undergraduates to work on the project.

Doing this kind of investigation takes time, and that’s why starting early is important. The more you know about yourself and the colleges you apply to, the better the chances of connecting with an admissions officer at a school that will be a good match. For a school you really want to attend, it’s worth doing everything you can to enhance your application.

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