The application process is a tricky balancing act: You want to show your target schools that you’re a perfect match, but you don’t want to blend into the multitude of applicants or become just a number. How can you show your authentic self in the application process? How can you present your strengths, and stand out? This series shows you how.
Once you’ve shown that you have what your target school is looking for – that you fit in – your challenge is to stand out among a pool of applicants who may, on a superficial level, look just like you.
When there are a lot of applicants who have pursued similar academic paths to prepare for grad school, taken the same exams, and may have parallel professional trajectories (at least at first glance), how can you make sure you don’t blend into the crowd?
The key is to show the committee what makes you unique, what makes you YOU.
Revealing Your Individuality – Identity, Deeds, Ideas
There are several ways to constructively reveal your individuality, and most importantly your ability to contribute to class discussions and your community, both on campus or after your graduate. In broad strokes, here is an overview:
1. Identity – Who are you?
Your background is a part of your identity and can help you differentiate yourself from your competition. Are you the first in your family to attend college? Did you grow up in a rural area or a country or state that doesn’t send many students to the programs you are applying to? Are you a member of an underrepresented minority? All those elements of your identity could contribute to your target program’s diversity and the richness of the learning environment that it provides.
Much like showing fit, you need to demonstrate your ability to contribute to the diversity of your class throughout your application, but a diversity statement or personal history, if requested, is prime territory for this endeavor. How has your background contributed to your interest in the field or perhaps to a distinctive interest not related to your professional or educational goals. Let them know how your identity animates your interests, drives your ability to contribute distinctively, and makes you tick.
If this sounds like you need to do serious thinking before you start writing, you’re right. Self-reflection is a great foundation for a good application. Journaling and taking notes before you sit down to write that essay or diversity statement may also be helpful. Thinking and “pre-writing” can help you show that you fit in and stand out.
2. Deeds – What have you accomplished?
As we’ve already discussed with reference to goals, one key strategy when you’re developing your application essay(s) is to make connections between what you have done in the past and what you plan to do in the future – the admissions committee needs to see that their program makes sense for you. The same logic applies to this Standing Out principle: by drawing on your past contributions, you can show how you have had an impact in the past, and make a link to how you will have an impact during grad school.
What are some areas where your unique experiences and contributions can make you stand out? Here are a few:
• Excelling in your academics or profession
• Success/leadership in your community service or volunteer work
• Unusual hobby or interest
• Unusual travel
• Overcoming a disability
This is another point where self-reflection and journaling/note-taking can help you. How have your unique experiences shaped your perspective? How have the contributions you’ve made in the past prepared you for the goals that lie ahead? How do the experiences that you are most proud of reveal the qualities and attributes that your target programs value?
3. Ideas – How you think?
Your unique perspective, formed by your experiences, can help you stand out as an applicant and show the committee why you’re great for their program. For example, someone with a background in analytics and big data can revolutionize retail and marketing or healthcare or all kinds of fields. Maybe you’re someone who has a record of looking at complicated problems in a new way, reaching innovative solutions: that’s a unique perspective and can help you stand out. Or perhaps your background combines seemingly disparate interests – such as music and law, or medicine and literature. Use your application to show how your experiences have given you both critical analysis and excellent listening skills.
Where can you do this on your application? The diversity statement and/or personal history would be one place. But the theme of contribution – the impact you’ve had, what you’ve learned from it, how you’ll contribute in the future – is something that should run through your entire application, including your statement of purpose, community service descriptions, and CV. It is something that you should be prepared to discuss in an interview.
As we discussed at the beginning of this series, one of the central challenges and paradoxes of the application process is that you need to simultaneously fit into the school’s target applicant pool and also stand out within that pool. In a competitive application process, only “fitting in” is not enough – you must distinguish yourself and show that you’re more than a number. Likewise, if all you do is “stand out,” the program may have qualms about your ability to do the work or participate constructively in its community and your chosen profession.
You must simultaneously fit in and stand out.
We’ve covered four aspects of this challenge (proving you can do the work, showing you fit in with the school’s culture, highlighting your goals, and demonstrating that you will contribute distinctively to class, school, and community) showing you how to use different parts of your application to both demonstrate your fit with the programs you’re applying to and your distinctiveness.
If you – like so many applicants – have concerns about how to apply this advice in your particular situation, we can guide you one-on-one just as we have guided thousands since 1994.
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