Many college hopefuls fret about how to make themselves stand out during the application process. Some become involved in as many extracurriculars as possible, while others take an all-AP curriculum. Still others volunteer every waking moment, or focus on establishing themselves in rare or unique fields.
Although all of these are great ways to stand out, what many students don’t realize is that the most effective and fool-proof way of declaring their uniqueness is already staring them right in the face—every single time they look in the mirror!
By taking a long, hard look at who you are, and taking pride in your life, experiences, and background, you’ll be able to present a one-of-a-kind story to colleges that will make you memorable, and might even increase your chances of acceptance.
Recognize Your Own Uniqueness
Of course, it can be hard for you to see what makes you special. After all, you live with yourself, and know yourself inside and out; the things that others see as unique or special about you might be invisible to you, because you live them every day.
Start by asking yourself some questions. Some of these may not seem like the questions colleges want to know the answers to, but they’ll help you start thinking about who you are and what your background is like.
- Where did you grow up?
- How would you describe your childhood and young adulthood?
- What kind of high school do you attend?
- What is your most unusual family tradition?
- Are you part of a big family? Are you an only child? How did this affect you as you were growing up?
- Who is the most significant person in your life? Why?
- Have you traveled extensively?
- Do you speak any languages other than English?
- Are you a demographic minority? Did you observe any special traditions growing up?
- What is your religious background and level of commitment (if any)?
- Do you play any instruments?
- What extracurriculars do you take place in at school?
- Do you volunteer? If so, where?
- What do you think is the most interesting job you’ve ever had?
- What is the most considerable hardship you’ve ever had to overcome? Why?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?
You’ll notice that these questions don’t really focus on academics. Schools will already know everything there is to know about your academic background—what they want to know about is you. It’s your job to present them with your true, interesting, and unique self, and make them care about you.
After you’ve answered these questions (as honestly and thoroughly as possible—no single word or “perfect” answers!), then ask someone else to read your responses, and tell you what they think stands out the most about you, what is the most interesting. You’ll be surprised at what they say! It’s better still if you ask people that you would consider acquaintances rather than friends; although friends know you well, they may know you too well, which would defeat the purpose of this exercise.
Start recognizing these interesting traits as your own unique characteristics, and start becoming comfortable with the idea of talking and writing about them. These are the traits that will make you stand out and become memorable to colleges.
Understand Cultural Diversity
Diversity is not just about how you grew up, though; it’s also about your heritage. Think about where your parents were born (was it in a different part of the United States than were you live now? Was it in a foreign country?), and think about the kinds of things you did to celebrate special holidays and festive occasions during your childhood and teenage years.
We tend to forget that the way we celebrate and congratulate may be different than other peoples’ ways of celebrating, simply because it’s what we’ve always done. However, taking the time to think about where our parents come from and how that affected how we interact as a family can give you valuable insight (and pride!) into who and how you are.
Remember Ethnic Diversity
Don’t forget that your ethnic diversity is just as valuable to your own uniqueness (and is just as interesting) as your cultural background. Are you Hispanic? Asian? African-American? European? Russian? The possibilities are endless. You don’t necessarily have to have been born in a foreign country to possess ethnic diversity.
This is where thinking about where your parents come from can help you figure out your own diversity. Chances are, if you have a particular ethnic background, you will also have certain customs and practices that come with it.
Think about it: Where are you really from? Not just your city and state, but your parents’ city and state, and their parents’ city and state. How did that affect your upbringing? Did it make you see things differently? Did you act a certain way, or live life in a particular manner because of your ethic background?
Don’t forget about all those wonderful and very interesting tidbits when thinking about how you are stand out. Even though they may seem like nothing special to you, they can be very special and interesting to people who want to know more about you (and that’s exactly who college admissions deans are!).
Don’t Forget Personal Diversity
In addition to your cultural and ethnic background, there are many, many facets to your personality that weren’t molded by your heritage. Things like political and religious beliefs, personal strengths and weaknesses, and academic and athletic assets have done as much to shape your person and personality as everything else. Don’t forget to consider them. Although they may have been influenced by others, these traits are now a part of who you are, and have made you into the person you are today.
If you’re not sure where you stand on these issues, take a moment to ask yourself some questions:
- What are my political beliefs? What do I stand strongly for or against? Am I politically knowledgeable?
- Do I have strong religious beliefs? What are they? Are they an important part of my life?
- What are my greatest strengths? What do I believe I bring to the table as a person?
- What are my greatest weaknesses? Are there things I am not good at, or think I still need to improve on?
- What are my strongest academic subjects? Where do I excel? What are my weakest subjects, or those I believe I need to work on the hardest to get the best result?
- Am I athletically capable? What are some of the sports I love to play? Why? Am I a good team player, or do I prefer sports I can play and practice alone? Do I strive to be the leader in my sports team?
Use Your Diversity of Experience
When thinking about all your qualities and traits, it is easy to forget that it was experiences that made you into who you are. When writing your college essays and taking part in admissions interviews, it is your experiences that will make you stand out and become memorable. Don’t forget that the most important part of learning and gaining pride in who you are is recognizing the experiences that got you there.
To make your essays and application as strong as possible, it will be your responsibility to not just tell colleges about your personal characteristics, but show them with stories and anecdotes that showcase these traits. Don’t just tell them that you are a great athlete—show them by relating a story of how your team won the State Championship. Don’t just tell them that you thrive under pressure—show them with a story about how you took the lead role in the school play on short notice with only two days to learn all the lines and rehearse.
It is these stories—your diversity of experience—that will add color and spice to the application you’re creating, and it is what will make you memorable.
It can often be difficult, when asked to talk or write about yourself, to think about what you could tell or what traits to highlight. However, by taking the time to really think about what makes you unique and taking pride in who you are, you will learn to tell a story that is both unforgettable and inspiring, and will paint a beautiful picture to which colleges simply can’t say no.