Connect the Dots with Your College Application

One of the biggest mistakes students make in preparing their applications for admission is the tendency to treat the information they submit as random data points. Scores, essays, courses, grades, and letters of recommendation are often regarded as items to be completed on a checklist for each college. When this happens, students miss important opportunities to make a difference in their applications. Rather than being purposeful in presenting their credentials, they fail to “connect the dots” to create a coherent picture of who they are.

As you prepare your applications for admission, then, consider how the different elements of your application can be woven together to tell your story. Remember that admission committees are most interested in learning about you and what you have to offer the community of scholars they are assembling through the admission process. Use your essays, letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars to create a picture of who you are and what you have to offer. Be thoughtful about your presentation so that your application makes a compelling statement that says, “Take me!”

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8 Tips for Making Your Case


1. Know what you want to say about yourself. What are the key messages you want to convey? If you are having trouble getting your arms around this, either because there is a lot to say or because you are struggling to find a beginning point, try the following:

  • Think about how others see you. How would your friends describe you? Your teachers? Your parents?
  • What key words and thoughts begin to emerge? Generous? Competitive? Studious? Inventive? A leader? A “renaissance person”?
  • Choose two or three that are most consistent with your core identity.
  • List the key involvements, experiences, and achievements that make the connection to these themes.
  • Look broadly and creatively at your application (essays, extracurricular profile, letters of recommendation) for opportunities to weave these elements together in making your case.

2. Resist the temptation to add newspaper clippings and certificates of achievement, as they tend to be redundant with the information provided in your application. Rather, take advantage of the opportunity to incorporate your accomplishments into the theme you are trying to establish for your application.

3. Be concise in completing the extracurricular profile on your application. Admission officers want to see how you distill the information that defines you in the space provided. If you absolutely need more space to list your activities and achievements, submit an additional page or, possibly, a resume with your application. If you go with the latter, keep it to one page. People writing on your behalf can address some of the key details and insights of the emerging “story.” Make sure they have the needed information and that they know how their perspectives are integral to the messages you seek to convey.

4. Focus on the events that have defined your life since the beginning of high school. Earlier accomplishments (prior to 9th grade) are ancient history from an admission perspective! Reference them only if you can demonstrate their relevance to the person you are becoming.

5. Reference family situations (achievements or setbacks) only to the extent that they have had an impact on you. You are the candidate. Don’t make your application a soliloquy to others in your life.

6. Use your essays and personal statements to “let the reader in.” Who are you? How do you think? What values do you hold dear? How do these insights connect with other information you are submitting about yourself? As you contemplate these questions, you give the reviewer of your credentials an understanding of your character that won’t appear anywhere else in the application.

7. When possible, take advantage of opportunities to tell your story in personal interviews with paid admission staff persons. They will be decision-makers when your credentials are considered behind closed doors. Not all schools offer interviews, but when they do, be prepared to capitalize on the opportunity. It is better to have some exposure with decision-makers than none at all.

8. Reach out to regional recruiters at the colleges of interest. Give them opportunities to help you with important questions and to learn about unusual circumstances in your life experience. At many institutions, these folks will be at the “point” in the decision-making with regard to your application. The more comfortable they are with what they know about you, the easier it will be for them to support your candidacy.

Finally, “connecting the dots” is moot if you don’t put yourself on competitive playing fields where you will be valued for what you have to offer—where your message will be well received. A strong message by itself won’t necessarily put you over the top if you are not already a competitive candidate—you can’t “will” your way into a college or university simply because you are qualified and have a strong desire to attend. Focus your time and attention on making the case for yourself at schools that make sense for you.

Written by Peter Van Buskirk, Director of Student Advocacy

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