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  • Writer's pictureJenny Deren

Apply With Purpose: 5 Strategies for Standing Out in Your College Applications

This is the final article in our three-part series detailing the three steps in the college application process:

  1. Understand Yourself

  2. Find the Right Fit Schools For You

  3. Apply With Purpose

Last time, I explained the factors that cause any given college to be (or not be) a good fit for you and offered strategies for searching for and researching schools. When your college search is aligned with your personality, interests, and goals, you’re more likely to apply to schools where you can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally – and you’re more likely to stand out to admission officers as a candidate who’s a good fit for their school. Once you have a balanced list of schools that are the right fit for you, you’re ready for step #3: apply with purpose.

What does this mean? When you apply with purpose, you’re not just filling out the application; you’re filling it out in a way that conveys who you are and why you’ll thrive at the schools you’re applying to. Applying with purpose means considering the “big picture” of your application and ensuring that you’ve provided clear and focused examples of what makes you *you* and what has contributed to your decision to apply to this school for this major, or with this goal for your education. Ultimately, applying with purpose demonstrates to your application readers that you have self-awareness and direction that resonates with the unique resources and opportunities at their specific school.

Here are 5 strategies for standing out in your college applications by conveying your purpose clearly and effectively.

Use “Future Plans” Questions to Clarify Your Interests and Goals

Tucked at the end of the Education section in the Common Application, the Future Plans questions ask you to identify the “highest degree you intend to earn” and your “career interest.” While you can answer these questions in a generic, straight-forward way, you can also use them intentionally, and even creatively, to announce what you value and aspire to in and after college.

Consider your career interest first. The Common App provides a drop-down menu from which you can choose the career interest that best fits your professional goals. For example, you can choose “Artist” or “Engineer” or “Policymaker/Government” (among many other options). You may want to be an artist or engineer or policymaker, and you can certainly select that item from the menu to describe that goal. But, if you want to be a multimedia artist, or a civil engineer in locations impacted by natural disasters, or a policymaker focused on human rights – if you have a more specific career interest or a career interest linked to a personal or social interest – then you have another option. Consider selecting “Other” from the drop-down menu and typing your more specific goal into the text box that appears when you make that choice. Why not take this opportunity to convey exactly what you want to do in a way that clarifies how you’re different from other artist/engineer/policymaker applicants? If you do select “Other,” just make sure that your very specific interest is clearly conveyed in other parts of your application (for example, in your Activities List or in your essays or elsewhere).

After you’ve selected a career interest, choose the “highest degree you intend to earn” that makes sense, based on your intended future career. For example, you need at least a Bachelor’s degree (and often a Master’s degree) to be an engineer, so you shouldn’t choose “Associate’s (AA, AS)” from the drop-down menu if engineering is your interest. An aspiring policymaker might go to law school after college and should consider selecting “Law (JD, LLM)” from the menu. An aspiring artist might want a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts (BFA) – and therefore may want to choose “Other.” Choosing wisely helps clarify your goals to admission officers reading your application and demonstrates that you know what kind of education is required for your intended career path – and that you and your interests are a good fit for the specific schools you’re applying to.

Highlight Your Unique Interests and Skills in Your Activities List

In the Common App Activities, you can list up to 10 extracurriculars on which you spend time outside of school. If you have participated in more than 10 activities during high school, you’ll need to choose which ones to include in your list and which ones to leave out. To decide which should stay and which should go, consider the following: the significance of the activity to you personally; the relevance of the activity to your intended major or academic area of focus at the school you’re applying to; how long you’ve spent on the activity in the past 3-4 years (the number of years you’ve participated, as well as how many hours per week and weeks per year); your leadership within the activity; and the impact you’ve had on others in your school or community as a participant and/or leader.

You don’t need 10 activities that perfectly match your intended major; after all, you may not have a clear intended major, and that’s ok! Even if you have long-term commitment in activities that are unrelated or only loosely related to what you want to do in or after college, you can use your Activities List to highlight ways in which you’ve demonstrated and developed your interests in that activity. Examples:

  • You love graphic design (and want to explore that field in college): describe your efforts to revamp visual marketing strategies for student council events during your tenure as a council member, or ways in which you documented events using your graphic design skills

  • You’re committed to wellness and invested in helping others stay healthy: describe the health and wellness column you established as a staffer (and then columnist) on your high school newspaper

  • You want to study Spanish in college (but your school didn't have a Spanish Club and you weren't able to start one): describe your role as a volunteer translator at Key Club events in your community

Think about your interests, strengths, and goals, including your intended major or minor, if you have one. Think about what you’ve done in high school. And then make sure that you’re including the ways in which you've applied your interests and strengths, and the ways in which you've started working toward your goals, as you're documenting what you've done. This is what makes you unique and impressive among your peers.

Write a Personal Essay that Conveys a Compelling Characteristic or Personal Quality

While your Activities List conveys your accomplishments (what you have done), your Personal Essay – the main essay in the Common App and on many other applications – should show who you are beyond your accomplishments. Consider the following instructions for the Personal Essay in the Common App:

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. [emphasis mine]

What do you want the readers of your application to know about you that they won’t find in your transcript, standardized test scores, Honors List, Activities List, or anything else that comes before the Writing section of your application? What should they know that’s not in your letters of recommendation or in your supplemental essays for specific schools? The Personal Essay is not a place to rehash your activities and accomplishments; rather, it is a way of voicing why you’ve done what you’ve done, or what you’ve taken away from those experiences that has shaped who you are.

The seven prompts are ways of approaching the question of what else you want application readers to know. You could write about “a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful [that your] application would be incomplete without it” (prompt #1), or "a challenge, setback, or failure" from which learned and grew (prompt #2), or “a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea” and were led to an unexpected or meaningful outcome (prompt #3). Or you could write about something else that sheds light on who you are underneath your academic and extracurricular records. Think in terms of personal qualities, such as persistence, curiosity, loyalty, and compassion. Think about influential experiences you’ve had or people you’ve encountered that changed the way you thought or acted or interacted with others.

The most important factor here is not your topic (what you’re writing about, or what happened to you) but rather what you have to say about it (why it matters, or how it’s changed or affected you – ideally in a positive way). In light of the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, if you are a racial or ethnic minority and have an authentic and meaningful story to tell about how your race or ethnicity has affected or influenced you, consider writing about this in your Personal Essay. No matter the topic of your essay, write reflectively and authentically, which are the best ways to demonstrate your self-awareness, direction, and fit for the schools you’re applying to.

Craft Supplemental Essays that Capture Why You’re a Good Fit for Specific Schools

Among the schools that use the Common App, many include one or more additional essay prompts within their school supplement, which contains a separate list of questions specific to that school. While the Common App is where admission officers learn more about you, the school supplement is where they find out more about your interest in, intentions at, and fit for their specific school. The main Common App gets sent to all of the schools you’re applying to, while the school-specific supplements go only to individual schools.

Common supplemental essay prompts include the following:

  • The “why this school” essay: for example, “Why did you choose to apply to Agnes Scott College?”

  • The “why this major” essay: for example, “Discuss an academic topic that you’re excited to explore and learn more about in college. Why does this topic interest you? Topics could be a specific course of study, research interests, or any other area related to your academic experience in college.” (from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

  • The “community essay” essay: for example, “At UMass Amherst, no two students are alike. Our communities and groups often define us and shape our individual worlds. Community can refer to various aspects, including shared geography, religion, race/ethnicity, income, ideology, and more. Please choose one of your communities or groups and describe its significance. Explain how, as a product of this community or group, you would enrich our campus.”

  • The “diversity essay”: for example, “Given your personal background, describe an influence that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrates the importance of diversity to you.” (from Lake Erie College)

Supplemental essay prompts can be more or less straightforward, and they can require shorter or longer responses (anywhere from 50-500 words or more). Here are some strategies for answering these and similar questions with purpose:

1. Identify what’s being asked in the clearest terms possible.

Many “why this major” and “why this school” prompts are relatively straightforward. But the “community essay” and essays asking about diversity, such as the ones above, can be a bit harder to parse. When the prompt includes extraneous language, boil it down to its more specific question or instruction. For example, the “community essay” above is asking you to explain two things: a) a community you belong to and its significance to you, and b) how you would contribute to the university’s community based on what you have experienced, learned, or gained from the community you already belong to. You can’t demonstrate why you’re a good fit for a school if you’re not sure what the prompt is asking, so do this first!

2. Answer the question as directly as you can.

In most cases, you have a limited number of words in which you can respond to the question, and you’ll have much more to say than will fit within the word limit. This means that your response needs to be clear and concise. Unlike your Personal Essay, which should be narrative in style, your style in supplemental essays should generally be more direct and expository: “I’m applying to XYZ University because…” (There are a few exceptions to this rule of directness, including the University of Chicago’s extended essay questions, which invite more creative responses). Remember that admission officers read very quickly and may start skimming (or stop reading altogether!) if your answer is unclear or difficult to find. Answering these questions concisely will be infinitely easier if you have a clear and focused idea of who you are and what you are looking for in your college education.

3. Make your answer relevant to that school, whether you’re explicitly being asked to do so or not.

While the main Common App gets sent to all of the schools you apply to (and therefore does not include school-specific information), each supplement is school-specific – and therefore an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of that school and your fit for its unique offerings, values, and community. Even if the “why this major” essay isn’t asking why you want to study your intended major at that school, consider adding a sentence or two about what attracts you to that school’s unique academic program. What makes their major stand out from the same major at other institutions? You might find differences in the courses offered, specialties offered within the major, experiential learning opportunities, interdisciplinary approaches to the field or topic, study abroad opportunities, lab facilities dedicated to that field, and more. Draw on your thorough research of each school and the reasons why you see yourself thriving there.

A couple words of further advice: Before you start your supplemental essays, make sure you have completed all of the questions in the supplement, including questions about the school within the university to which you are applying (if applicable), your intended major(s) or academic areas of focus, and so on. In some cases, the way you answer these questions affects the prompts that the application will ask you. For example, you may encounter a different essay prompt if you say you plan to study engineering than if you say you plan to study English. Remember that the course of study and the activities in which you express interest should be consistent with the information you provided in the main Common App. For example, if you said in the Future Plans section that your career interest is “Artist,” then admission officers might be surprised if you select "Biology" and "Pre-Med" as your primary interest areas in their school supplement.

Finally, look out for supplemental essay prompts in unexpected places! In some school supplements, an additional “activities” essay (“please elaborate on one of your activities”) is tucked within the Activities tab in the school supplement, separate from the Writing section or Writing Supplement. Expect to find essay prompts anywhere and everywhere, and make sure you’ve identified where and what those prompts are before you start writing!

Choose Letter of Recommendation Writers Who Will Speak to Your Purpose

When selecting letter of recommendation writers, consider your options carefully. It’s good practice to send a “thank you” note or email to teachers who have agreed to write your letters. This follow-up communication is also an excellent opportunity to remind your recommenders of how you contributed to their classes and how the content of the courses they taught you (or what you learned from your experience in the class) will help you achieve your future goals, both in college and afterward. What you learned doesn’t have to be academic subject matter; it can be strong study skills, time management, perseverance, work ethic, collaboration with peers, and other “soft skills” or personal qualities that will assist you after high school.

What are your goals? What role has this teacher and course played in your personal and academic development? What do you hope this teacher will convey about you to application readers in the admissions office? You can’t tell your teacher what to write. But by letting her know that you enjoyed a specific assignment (and why), or that you’ve seen yourself grow in a specific way in her class, you can remind her of all the excellent things she has to say about you. Remember that your English teacher may not be aware of your plan to major in Astrophysics or of your long-term goal of going to graduate school. These details may be outside the scope of her letter, but knowing this context certainly can’t hurt – and, if your English teacher is able to show that your strong communication skills will help you excel as an astrophysics scholar, all the better for you and your application! (The same is true for non-teacher recommendation writers, such as coaches, mentors, supervisors, and church leaders).

Here is an outline of what this “thank you” note might look like:

Dear Mrs. ______,

Thank you, again, for agreeing to write a letter of recommendation for my college applications! You may not know this about me, but I’m hoping to major in _______ and do ________ after college OR I am a committed advocate for _______ and plan to explore _______ in college. I’m applying to the following schools, which have the following application deadlines: _________________.

My favorite part of your class was ____________. I enjoyed it because ___________, and I think it helped me ________________.

Another aspect of the class that I enjoyed OR another way in which I grew in your class was _____________. [and so on]

Please let me know if I can provide any further information that will help you write your letter, such as a resume.

Thank you!



Of course, a note like this one will not be appropriate in every situation. For example, if your school has a specific procedure for asking for letters of recommendation, or uses questionnaires or “brag sheets” to collect information for this purpose, you should follow your school’s procedure. But do make sure you are providing your letter writers with the context they need to speak to your purpose.

Completing your college applications is stressful and can feel overwhelming at times. But it should also be exciting and rewarding. When you take the time to understand who you are, why you’re applying to college, which schools are the very best fit for you, and then draw on those details as you answer the application questions – the process will feel easier, more manageable, and even fun! And you’ll have a wealth of good options to choose from when it’s time to decide where to enroll.

Still have questions about the application process? I’m here for you! Ask in the comments or shoot me an email.

For questions about the Common App, in particular, check out the AXS Companion, a FREE online resource from the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and Oregon State University.

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