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Understanding Yourself

Getting Started

    Why is understanding yourself before you start your application?

    Before embarking on your college application, you should reflect on yourself, your passions, and your goals. While your goals and vision of yourself will certainly change with time, colleges are looking for applicants who have a solid sense of self and some concrete, achievable goals. Increasingly, top universities are striving to curate incoming classes with diverse interests and strengths. Therefore, you should consider what you will offer a campus community, and also what you hope to glean from your college experience. Colleges are not only looking for candidates who will be an asset to campus activities, but also for candidates who will make the most of the resources provided to them. By reflecting on your own interests, you will not only gain insight about yourself and what you are looking to gain from your college experience, but also about how you might thrive in a university environment.

    As you prepare your application, try to imagine yourself in your reader’s shoes. Your reader will be trying to put together a picture of you based on your application, interests, and writing samples, so you should strive to make your application as indicative of your interests and goals as possible. Before you begin drafting your responses to the Common Application writing prompts or college-specific essays, consider these questions:

    • What are you good at?
    • Which activities have you loved participating in? Which might you want to continue in college, or potentially as a career?
    • What do you want from your college experience? Consider the resources a college offers: friends, networking, extracurricular activities, access to esteemed professors, opportunities for learning about new fields, etc.
    • What are the things you enjoy doing the most? These don’t necessarily need to be related to school.
    • What are your life goals after college? Do you want to continue in academia? Become a professional athlete? Start your own business?
    • How will the schools that you are applying to help you achieve your goals? To answer this question, you should research the faculty and resources that each college offers. Even though you will be applying to several colleges, your application should be tailored as specifically as possible to each college you apply to.
    • What are your life goals after college? It is very likely you may switch careers more than once after college, so try to think beyond your ideal first job, and instead consider the life you hope to be leading many years after graduation.

    When answering these questions, allow yourself to dream big. College is an incredible opportunity that can connect you to professionals in your field, expose you to new ideas that may completely change your worldview, and introduce you to friends who can challenge you in exciting ways. Admissions boards will expect you to transform over your four years attending college, but are also looking for ambitious candidates who will make the most out of their college experience. So if you want to be the next Steve Jobs, have the confidence to say so! Colleges are interested in playing a part in shaping a new generation of thinkers and global citizens; they know it is entirely possible for a candidate to enter school with pre-med plans, and leave with an acceptance to a PhD program in English Literature. Therefore, it is useful to think about how you might change in the next four years. What interests have you not been able to explore in high school that you may be exposed to in college? It is important to enter into the application process as both ambitious and flexible. Your enthusiasm for learning and your open-mindedness and excitement about what college offers will be your greatest assets.

    Applying This Understanding

    Once you have articulated your goals and interests, you will be faced with the task of strategically expressing these ambitions in your application. While colleges will not explicitly ask about your 20-year plan, there are ways of communicating your goals and passions within your application. As we will discuss throughout this book, there are various opportunities within the application to demonstrate that you understand yourself and your passions.

    Strategy 1: Honors Section

    The honors section of your application is one opportunity to direct a reader’s attention towards your greatest strengths. If you have received many academic honors, focus on using the ones which best display your specific skill set. For example, if you love the sciences and made Honor Roll every semester, but also won a national or regional science fair, choose the science fair recognition over mentioning Honor Roll. By strategically highlighting honors that demonstrate your expertise and passions, you will show your reader not only that you have won recognition in the past, but that you are likely to contribute your passion to campus communities as well.

    Strategy 2: Activities Section

    With a maximum of ten activities to list (on the Common Application), you can be even more strategic in the activities section. As we will discuss in chapter 5, you should not feel pressured to fill all ten slots. Rather, choose to list activities that demonstrate your spikes of interest, and show a strong time commitment to the activities that are most important to you. If you are most well-defined by your passion for English, for example, your activities section should reflect that interest, with several activities (newspaper, literary magazines, blogging, etc.) that demonstrate how you have devoted your time to pursuing what you love. As with the honors section, the activities section is also a way for readers to gauge not only your past, but also your future. Highlight activities that correspond to your goals and ambitions, and that hint at future participation in similar organizations.

    Strategy 3: Writing Sample

    Your writing sample is your opportunity to shine. Think strategically about how to incorporate your passions and goals into your essay. The following are the five options the Common Application gives as writing prompts. We’ve included examples of applicants who know how to leverage these questions into dynamic reflections of their goals and interests.

    1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

    Carla is a first-generation Mexican-American who hopes to study Spanish literature and Hispanic cultures. While she has many stories that are central to her identity (her participation in Girl Scouts, her love of theater, etc.), she wants her readers to know that she is passionate about her heritage and that she will be active in Hispanic societies on campus. She chooses to write on this prompt and tells about her experience growing up in a bilingual household. She not only discusses her past, but also how her background has influenced her academic and extracurricular interests.

    2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

    Evan is a top-tier basketball player and is being recruited for athletics, but he is also a passionate scientist. He chooses this prompt and writes about an experiment he conducted on energy efficiency in his high school. The experiment went through several permutations, and he modified his hypothesis after his findings were not what he had hoped. He ties in his basketball experience when he discusses how sportsmanship has helped shape his approach to both academic and athletic set-backs, and he makes it clear that in college, he will continue growing as both an athlete and a member of the scientific community.

    3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

    Ambika is passionate about human rights, and wants to major in International Relations. She chooses this prompt because it will allow her to highlight not only her time as Student Council President, when she approached her school principal about a controversial idea, but will also give her the opportunity to demonstrate that she is devoted to changing unfair policies. Since this question asks if she would make the same decision in the future, she will be able to discuss her ambitions to become involved in student government on campus.

    4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

    David has been keeping up with biology literature since he developed a passion for biotechnology early in his high school career. He is also passionate about solving problems that affect primarily developing countries. He uses recent research to come up with a project proposal for investigating a protein that is suspected to play a key role in Ebola infection, with the goal of creating a cheap vaccine for use in developing countries. By outlining a potential technical solution to a relevant problem while showcasing his altruistic side, David can demonstrate impressive knowledge in and passion for his field while showing that he has a strong moral compass.

    5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

    Andrea is passionate about social justice, and has won various recognitions for her leadership in her community. She has spent three years volunteering at a women’s shelter in her town, and hopes to study public policy and law. After reflecting on this question, she remembers the time when the manager of the women’s shelter was sick on the day of a large fundraiser, and Andrea had to spearhead the event by herself. She discusses how this responsibility made her realize her own potential as an adult, and then talks about the values she has learned from her volunteer experience and how she will put those values into action by becoming involved in law.

    Final Tips

    A thorough understanding of yourself, your passions, and your goals can deeply influence how you put together your college application. By understanding both how you see yourself, and how you hope your reader will see you, you can leverage your experience and interests to best express your potential as a student, leader, and citizen.

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