Your college application could be the most important sales pitch of your life.
The product, in this case, is you: the prospective student. Will you bring diversity to the class? Are you a natural leader? What unique passions and talents do you offer? Who are you?
Your personal brand tells the college admissions committee whether you’re the right fit for the institution — and if so, what you’ll contribute to the incoming class.
It’s your “hook,” says college admissions expert Steve Cohen, author of “Getting In: The Zinch Guide to College Admissions and Financial Aid in the Digital Age.” “You want to give the admissions committee something that will convince them to hang their hat on you,” he says. “Where are you going to fit into this mosaic of a class?”
Five best practices for “branding” your college application
To secure your spot in next year’s class, take a page from business marketing best practices. Develop your brand and aim for a clear message in your marketing communications, starting with your college application. If you’ve nailed your target market, your pitch should land you an acceptance letter.
Keep in mind these top five branding best practices:
Understand your target market
Research colleges to find the best fit. College applications are about finding the right place for you to grow intellectually and prepare for a career. They are not about winning a popularity contest with the most selective institutions. “Don’t confuse rankings with the right fit,” cautions Cohen. He advises students to select seven to nine schools — a few safety schools, a few strong possibilities and a few dream schools.
Differentiate your brand
Companies differentiate on product, price, place and promotion. As a college applicant, you may differentiate yourself on passion, past experience, talent and skills, and personal qualities.
College admissions counselors caution students against representing themselves according to their perception of the “ideal applicant.” Counselors are looking for a well-rounded class, not a well-rounded student, says Cohen. Scott Jaschik, editor of InsideHigherEd, explains that committees “would rather see passion about one interest than signing up for every possible activity in high school.” In other words, find your hook: The shining skill or passion that makes you unique. Your application will stand out from the crowd if you play to this strength.
Keep the messaging consistent across all channels…
The college application is just one of the marketing communication channels for your personal brand. Social media is another main outlet. Many college admissions officers view social media profiles or use the Internet to learn more about a student. If you are a dedicated scholar-athlete in your college application, make sure your Internet presence tells the same story. That Facebook photo of you taking shots at the local dive bar is your version of Nike caught at an Indonesian sweatshop.
Learn how to use social media to your advantage in college admissions.
…But not too consistent. Be true to yourself
Stay true to the spirit of who you are, not to a narrow definition of your brand. “A brand doesn’t have to look the same; it just has to feel the same” across all communications, says branding expert Justin Cox.
The best brands and the best college applications find a compelling story in the details. John Chopka, vice president for enrollment management at Messiah College, is “looking for the immeasurable qualities that set a student apart.” Admissions committees like to see high grades and test scores, but they also want to understand the unique individual behind the achievement. “A list of honors and accomplishments can be quite impressive, but we also like to know what inspires a student to achieve,” says Chopka.
College applicants can also “keep it real” by taking ownership over their college essay. It’s tempting to have a parent or counselor control the message. But admissions counselors can spot an essay that’s been worked over or rewritten by someone else — or purchased online. Write the essay yourself, and you’ll come across as an individual rather than a flat “perfect student” character out of central casting. Authenticity in all its complexity (including some tarnishes) is more compelling than a perfectly polished brand.
Be aware of your packaging
Avoid typos and other blemishes that could disrupt your branding communication. Nothing says “slacker” like a college application essay that names another school. Missed application deadlines also will not position you as a responsible student who has what it takes to succeed in a college class. A clean, typo-free application that provides all requested information and answers questions directly, however — That’s the work of a dedicated student who understands and strives for excellence in everything she does.
College admissions counselors pore over hundreds of applications in search of the right student. Make their job easy by creating a clear and genuine brand that represents who you are, and what you can contribute to next year’s entering class.
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