Make Yourself A "Best Buy" Applicant

It's October. For most high school seniors, that means one thing: applying to college. Two deadlines loom in the not so distant future: November 1 for Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED). Aside from the pressure of those dates, one larger challenge remains -- making yourself stand out from the thousands of others who will be your competition in the applicant pools.

This is the age of consumerism. With that comes the the discipline of marketing. For decades, I have used my phrase "student profile marketing." That means putting your best foot forward in your college applications so that the admissions committees who read it will see you as someone with whom they would like to share campus space.

Marketing. That's an often despised word. Have you ever seen the award-winning TV series Mad Men? It's about the kinds of issues and actions Madison Avenue marketing people employ to sell products. There are some valuable lessons in their episodes that can be applied to the college admission process. That's what I would like discuss today.


My post's title, Make Yourself A "Best Buy" Applicant, alludes to the fact that you are probably not the one or two applicants that will have the most overall "horsepower" in the applicant pools you'll be wading into. That's perfectly fine. However, you'll need to see yourself as a "product" and view the various admissions committees you'll be facing as "consumers." Thus, the marketing approach.


Think about why publications that review products, such as Consumer Reports, bestow the coveted title of Best Buy on a particular toaster or TV. These products aren't the most expensive or fancy, and may not have all the bells and whistles of other units competing for your money. But ... they deliver top-notch performance, reliability, and overall quality at a reasonable price. That's a Best Buy.

You should be thinking of yourself in those terms and reflect that in your applications. You're trying to sell yourself. Therefore, you need to do some savvy marketing, not deceptive in any way, but resourceful in bringing out those aspects that make you shine.

Naturally, by now, you're asking me, "Hey, Dave. How do you do that? Huh?" The answer is simple: through your writing!

One of the most important aspects of the art of college admissions protocol is revealing to the admissions committees who you are and how you think. Probably the best way to do this is through your essays. Of course the Common Application requires you to write a significant essay in response to one of a number of different prompts. You'll also have to write your answers to some so-called "short responses."


The Common App supplements required by many colleges, especially the most competitive ones, further tax your ability to present your best personal qualities. There may be an additional essay or two plus little questions about the more subtle aspects of who you are. The purpose of my advice here is to give you some guidelines to help you reveal qualities about yourself that you may not have thought of before.

So, what follows is a series of questions that will help you pull those formerly little-known features about your personality, humor, and other qualities out of the dark and into the light of your applications. Once you've answered these questions, you'll be able to use the information in a number of places in those applications.

I suggest that you copy this questionnaire and paste it into your word processor. Then, print it out and work on your responses. Keep them handy because they'll be a strong advocate for you come application time.

Take your time with this and be as expansive as possible. Let your writing flow. Even though there are some obvious questions here (name, email address, etc.), fill out all information. Keep in mind that you're presenting who you are (your "Best Buy" features) to people who have never met you.



E-mail address:

- I am a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.  (“X” your answer.)    Yes _____ No _____

- What is your first language: _____________________

- What other languages, if any, do you speak fluently? __________________________

- What is your high school’s track record for sending its graduates to the Ivies and other elite colleges?  Can you cite some specific outcomes from recent graduating classes?

- Does your school’s college counselor have a lot of experience with elite college admissions?  Do you have a good relationship with your counselor?  His/her recommendation will be crucial.  Will your rec from him/her be top notch?


The following “Hodge-Podge” questions will help the admissions committee(s) get to know you a bit better. Don’t obsess over your answers.  Write what first comes to mind, and don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or sentence structure.  Have fun with these.

- What single achievement are you most proud of?  (It could be something “public” like being a student-government officer or something far more personal, like teaching yourself how to do a back dive or learning to get along with a stepparent.)

- What's the most difficult thing you've had to do in your life?

- What do you do better than almost anyone else?  (Again, it could be a highly visible achievement like leading the basketball team in scoring, or perhaps you’re the only one in your family who can get your little brother to eat broccoli.)

- What's the nicest thing you've ever done for anyone?  (Name a few, if several come to mind.)

- What do you think your teachers say about you when you’re not around?

- What do you think your friends say about you when you’re not around?

- What do you worry about most (besides college admissions)?

- What really makes you laugh?


- What's your all-time favorite book and why?

- What are your favorite foods? What foods do you avoid (or even spit out)?

- Where do you think you will be and what will you be doing 10 years from now?

- If you could do one thing over in your life, what would it be and why?

- If a highly selective college had to pick between you and one other applicant, why should they pick you?  (Elaborate on this one a bit.  Don't make it too short.  Be both serious and funny, if you can.  Feel free to make a list of 5 or 10 reasons why they should take you and not the other candidate.)


So there you have it. If you take the time to answer all these questions carefully and in depth, you'll have a solid arsenal of material to use in your applications, especially in those sometimes challenging Common App supplemental essays and short responses.

Once again for emphasis: Your goal for your applications is to tell those admissions committees who you are and how you think. This questionnaire will help you do that.

Don't waste time. Do it now. You'll be glad that you did, and it will be a Best Buy of your time!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.