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College Admissions: What Do You Want Colleges to Know About You?

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


Photo Credit: maebmij via Compfight cc (Image cropped)

Fifteen minutes, 650 words, and a few numbers from 0-4 and 200-800.

Is that enough to encapsulate 18 years of your life?

The idea that a college could “get to know you” by spending 15-20 minutes reading your application is ridiculous! You're a complex person with nuances that can’t be reduced to a transcript, test scores, a list of activities, recommendation letters and an essay (or two or three).

Because that's the reality of the admissions process, however, it's important for you to decide which of your many great characteristics you want to put front and center in your application. I use an exercise I call “Three Descriptors” to help students decide which qualities best define them.

Here’s the process:

Write down as many words as you can think of describe yourself. They can be adjectives (funny, outgoing, thoughtful) or nouns (leader, mentor, athlete). Don’t spend more than five minutes and don’t make judgments. For example, if you're a bossy person you might think of the word “bossy” but then eliminate it because you believe that is a negative trait. Don’t do that. Just write “bossy” on your list because there are lots of positive alternative words for bossy (direct, commanding, influential, persuasive) that you can pick after the next steps of the exercise.

You should now have a good list with 10-20 words or phrases that describe you. Highlight three to five of your favorites.

Next, ask each of your parents to come up with three words that they think best describe you. Don’t show them your list and ask them not to work together. 
If you have siblings, ask them for three words too. Yes, I realize they may take potshots (annoying comes up a lot), but it is helpful to get their perspectives.
Now pick three close friends and get three words from each of them. If you text your buddies you will undoubtedly get back wise-cracks, so an in-person ask might be more likely to generate a useful list. 

Here is what a compiled list might look like:

You: hard-working, intelligent, cooperative, leader, energetic, involved, funny, helpful, kind, honest, sincere, calm under pressure, curious

Family: smart, scientific, athletic, intellectual, genuine, irreverent, insightful, independent

Friends: smart, determined, helpful, witty, knowledgeable, settled/down to earth, intellectual, motivated, unmotivated, kind, smart, hard-working, honest, responsible, adaptive

Once you have a combined list, look for patterns. In this example smart/intellectual is a common theme. Funny/irreverent/witty seem like aligned words that are colorful descriptors. Calm under pressure/adaptive seems like an interesting possibility too. Hard-working, helpful, kind and honest are each words that come up on two sets of lists.

Before you decide which words you want to choose as personal descriptors, I’ll tell you how these words will be useful throughout the application process. Your grades and test scores are quantitative. The combination of your activities, recommendation letters and essays is qualitative. You want the qualitative portion of your application to paint a clear and consistent picture for the reader. If the admissions rep has not had the chance to meet you in person, how can you give her a sense of who you are? By picking your descriptors in advance, you can tell true stories about yourself that prove these characteristics are essential to your character, and that you will be a valuable asset to the college you attend. You can be transformed from a name and numbers to a person who would be great to have on campus.

So now that you know why these descriptors will help you through the next steps of the college application process, pick three that you believe best represent you. This is the moment when you can be critical about the words so you find ones that feel true, positive and dynamic. For the above example the student might choose intellectually curious, witty and calm under pressure. Remember, your stories will have to prove these words, so pick words that are backed-up by your actions.

Save your chosen descriptors in an easily accessible place—on your phone, in a text, in an email, on a sticky note over your desk.  I’ll explain how to use them in future columns about recommendation letters and personal essays, so that during the 15 minutes of attention your application gets from an admissions reader you make a strong impression.

Jodi Walder

Jodi Walder is the founder of College Admission Coach LLC (Portland, Oregon) which helps students identify and gain admission to right-fit schools where they will thrive academically and personally. www.collegeadmissioncoach.com .


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