If you're applying to college as a STEM major, you might have concerns about how to differentiate yourself from your fellow applicants. After all, it's common to meet other students who have similar grades and test scores to yours, as well as the same extracurriculars. However, many students can get past this by following a few important steps.
Use the Essay, Activities to Stand out
Some STEM students worry that their applications are so STEM-focused that they don't appear well rounded enough, but that's not necessarily a concern among admission officers. "Being the best at something like STEM is enough in some cases," says Antonio Cruz of Ivy Scholars, a college admissions consulting firm in Sugar Land, Texas. "Colleges want well-rounded classes, rather than well-rounded students; each student is the master of one or two things, the class as a whole can do anything."
If you're concerned that you're too similar to other candidates (in activities, interests or background), work on your essays to make yourself stand out, he advises. Essays can help you highlight your uniqueness, and each essay should be a window into your thought process, allowing you to demonstrate exactly who you are, he notes.
"The activities being similar to others is sometimes inevitable — students interested in robotics only have so many outlets for it," Cruz said. "What sets a student apart then is how they talk about and think about their passions. What motivates them, what drives them, and what is their end goal."
He adds that if students are not unique in their activities, they should examine what about their circumstances or backgrounds make them different or unique and highlight those. He created a "before and after" sample activities list for STEM applicants that shows exactly how students can word their extracurriculars in a strong, focused way. You can read that document here.
Avoid Being Transactional
One common mistake that STEM applicants tend to make is treating the college application process as a pre-vocational transaction. In other words, they imply (or say outright) that they're attending college only so they can get their dream job. However, the elite-level colleges want students who are interested in learning, so each student should ensure that they show the school what they'll contribute to the community, says Sasha Chada, CEO of Ivy Scholars. "If the college thinks the student will go to class, then just go to their room and study and not interact with anyone else on the campus, that's a minus," he adds. "It's a lot like interviewing for a job — you would never answer the question 'Why do you want to work here?' by saying you need the money," he says. "In that same vein, don't tell a college you want to attend their school just to get the job connections that would result from the degree."
Therefore, when writing essays, you should focus on qualities liberal arts schools want, he notes. "Leverage more than just your STEM skills. Explain how you can be a part of what they're about and leave the part about the transaction out of the conversation."
Show Your Collaboration Skills
There's more to STEM than studying and researching — collaboration is key to your success when pursuing an education in this field. Therefore, you should showcase your collaborative skills in your essays and activities, Chada says. "Great STEM students are great collaborators, they are good at talking to people about what they've learned — and this is critical — so few people understand how important it is to do outreach in STEM."
Although many college applicants focus on a narrow slice of STEM, there are other aspects to the field where students can focus that will help them stand out, he notes. "For instance, grant writing is an important part of STEM research, and if students do extracurriculars that show they have an interest in that side of the field, that could be appealing to admission officers."
In addition, he adds, students can prepare for studying STEM in college by learning project management systems and writing out plans that will spur collaboration. "Students who do this often pique admission officers' interest because they're showing that they're not just focused on one niche area of the field."
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