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The power of a cohesive college application

In Application, Essays and Senior.

How to Create A Cohesive College Application

When you're wading through the common application, it's easy to feel that you're missing something.

It's clear (more or less) what to do with the essays: Write them really, really well, whatever that means. But the various non-essay sections are a bit of an enigma.

Is there a strategy that governs the extracurricular or work sections?  Is there some special edge you can get in the demographic section?

The answer really depends. But the thing I want to talk about here is the broad picture for your application. I want to give you a general strategic principle that you can use to think about every section of your app.

When I work with my students on their essays, a big part of our attention is just on the writing itself.

We are focused on skillful expression, genuine story-telling, and on engaging with those topics that have real meaning to the student.

But at times we switch gears and talk about the meta-picture of the application. That is, we discuss the picture of the applicant that is shaping up across the common app, extracurricular statements, supplementary essays, test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and even emails sent to the admissions office.

We do this because admissions folks aren't reading your essays. They're not looking at your transcripts. Or your letters of rec.

They're reading your application, which is the gestalt of those components. It's the mingling effect of all of them together that you need to pay attention to if you want to create a good application.

(By the way, this strategy principle is the basis of our Essay Academy, a program built to help you craft college essays that actually work.) 

Balance out your weakest areas with your strongest

Say you have a conspicuously low GPA. That's fine - it is what it is. The question is, what do we do about those low grades on the rest of the application?

Assuming you've chosen an appropriate list of schools, a low GPA will not be a barrier to entry if you can contextualize and buoy that "weakness" elsewhere.

For students who have low GPAs, for example, I might recommend finding a way to address academic achievement in one of the supplemental essays... Or even in the extracurricular section.

Can you balance out that D in math by drawing attention to an exceptional performance in an AP English class? Students with low GPAs are still allowed to present themselves as curious, motivated scholars.

What about students who have few extracurriculars? Hey, that's OK, as long as you're able to give universities a clear picture of what you were doing alternatively.

I have worked with students who had next to no extracurriculars by their senior year of high school. So what did we do? We talked about the time they spent each week working with their grandparents in the garden.

We accounted for the student's time in a different way, showing their deep commitment to family. The admissions results were just as strong as among those students who had high-flying extracurriculars.

Define your "thing" then point every detail toward it

Think about the actual process of admitting a student at most schools. Typically someone in the admissions office is assigned your file along with thousands of others.

Keep in mind that this person may or may not be very well-paid, and they certainly will have other things going on in their life during admissions season.

It is then their job to read your application carefully but efficiently, gleaning what they can about who you are, what you're about, and whether they should advocate for your admission.

That last part is key: they need reasons to advocate for you. So your goal is simple: give them those reasons, and don't make them hard to discover.

When you're in a relationship with someone for a long time, you will realize that they, like everyone, are complex. You will slowly uncover their contradictions, their quirks, their flaws. They may be very different from the person you thought they were at first. But that doesn't mean you're going to end the relationship. You may appreciate them even more.

You don't have that same luxury of time in college admissions. Your goal is to present a powerful, straightforward, and consistent personal narrative. Why? Because, psychologically, you are more likely to stand out, more likely to be considered, and more likely to be remembered.

People like people who stand for things, who are all about specific stuff, whether it's knife-sharpening or convolutional neural networks.

So be about something. And be about it all over your application.

Are you a community leader who is passionate about history? Bam. That's who you are. Your common app is now about history and leadership. Your first supplemental is now about history, and your second is now about leadership. Your extracurriculars? Well, I think you know. Your common app? It's about the time you led your local historical society to raise funds for a new archive. (Idk, just spitballing here.)

I'm not trying to be too prescriptive here. I'm just trying to illustrate the point that the best applications are designed to be easily graspable by an audience of readers with limited time and attention.

Really, the only thing you want to avoid is pointing your application in a many different directions. (Unless your central narrative is that you are a renaissance person who loves to pick up new things. But if that's your narrative, be god damn clear about it!)

A cohesive application unifies all the disparate sections under a common thematic banner. That is, everything comes back to your core narrative. And this core narrative should usually be based around your key strengths.

So figure out what you're good at, and in which ways your application is impressive, then commit to those themes!

But, of course, it's never that easy. For you have to do it all while being authentic and genuine. It's hard out there.

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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