Your Path

Market Yourself: Effective Strategies for Standing Out (Part I of III)

JulieAnne Dietz

Both as a school counselor and now as a college strategist, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, “How can I differentiate myself from peers with the same (or better) course load, standardized test scores, and/or GPA?”  Because I know a lot of my readers probably have this same question, I have decided to create a three-part blog series to reveal some of my favorite strategies for achieving this.  I’m going to try to be as specific as possible to give you suggestions you can work with!

Alright, let’s jump in!  Today were going to start talking about the importance of having Passion Projects and what it means to Formulate Your Story!

Strategy #1 Passion Projects

Back when I was applying to college in the late 1990’s, counselors and parents all over the country held tight to what seems to have been a well choreographed, nation-wide application mantra, “make sure you appear to be  well-rounded.”

It sounded sensible enough, and probably still holds some merit, but too often this sage advice was translated by students as, “sign up for any and every club, activity, and committee you can find.”

Take me for example.

By the time my junior year came around I too had succumbed to the “well-rounded” mantra – accepting that good grades and an outstanding soccer career weren’t going to be enough when it came to college admissions. So I followed the heard and hit the sign-up sheets hard.

And, like most everyone else, my approach was less than strategic. Which is how I ended up in both the Math and Equestrian clubs!

Now, there is nothing wrong with either of these clubs in practice, but looking back I can’t help but laugh. Why?

First of all, I wasn’t particularly interested in math; something that was quite evident from my report card. As for equestrian, on my first (and last) day as a proud member of the Equestrian Club my horse threw me off and tried to roll over me like I was a fly on his back. TRUE STORY!

In short, I wasn’t fooling anyone (or enhancing my application)!

“If you are truly looking to gain a competitive advantage, schools will expect you to contribute to a “passion project” in a pretty meaningful way – and the more selective the school the bigger impact they’ll want to see.”

Thankfully times have changed and this “well-rounded” ethos has given way to something a bit more practical – and perhaps enjoyable.

These days, and particularly if you’re trying to get into a highly selective school or gain admissions to a school that is slightly above your GPA or standardized test range, colleges will be looking for something a bit different.

Demonstrated passion and commitment.

What this means is that, in general, admissions counselors would rather see you make a difference in YOUR world (whether that be within your school, community, or society) through consistent participation in activities that interest you (i.e. align to your story).

So for someone like me it would have been far more strategic to coach youth soccer or serve as a mentor for first year students than to join the Math Club. And even better…to either create and grow a new club or organization, or eventually rise to a leadership position within an existing one.

So the good news is that colleges want you to do more of what makes you happy, but there’s a catch (sort of).

If you are truly looking to gain a competitive advantage, schools will expect you to contribute to a “passion project” in a pretty meaningful way – and the more selective the school the bigger impact they’ll want to see.

So what is my best advice for building a resume of meaningful extra-curricular activities? Start early and progress!

Even if you start with something small, like a volunteer experience or a free sports clinic for local kids; you should start the process as early as possible (think freshman or sophomore year). This will be a commendable experience on it’s own, but you never know how something may evolve if you give it enough time and attention.

But that’s not all.  Keep reading below the picture for four practical tips on how you can get started…

Find a project the makes you Light Up (photo courtesy of Morgan Sessions via

Take Denzel Thompson for example.

Recently I came across the story of this 18-year old who won the Teen Nick Halo Award. Denzel was honored for his passion project of cofounding, Philadelphia Urban Creators, a nonprofit that works to revitalize urban areas and create sustainable gardens that grow healthy foods.

While you might be thinking, “Okay, great, but he is an award winning teen. I can’t do something like that”, the truth is his passion project started with a single empty lot in his neighborhood that, with the support of other kids, he transformed into a garden while also transforming his health by losing 150 pounds through healthy eating.

The point is, most major accomplishments start small, and even if what you do doesn’t grow into the next Philadelphia Urban Creators, if your participation is meaningful, committed, and aligned to sincere interests, it still helps tell a compelling story.

Here are four ways you could start (after taking time to identify your area(s) of interest):

DIVE RIGHT IN.  Join an existing club, project, or program and get involved. Work hard, seek out responsibility and think of innovative ways to contribute.

FIND AN EXISTING organization, club or project elsewhere in the world and contact a member for guidance on starting a local chapter in your own community

CREATE SOMETHING NEW. Think about your talents, skills or areas of interest and, no matter how small, take the first steps in sharing your passion and/or making a difference.

FIND A MENTOR. Mentors can help you find projects, create initiatives, and make the right contacts. A good place to start is with your school counselor, a favorite teacher, a coach, or your parents – all of whom may be able to serve as (or link you up with) a great mentor.

Strategy #2: Formulate your Story (Time to Apply)

When it comes time to apply to college, you need to understand that admissions officers typically have to sort through dozens (if not hundreds) of identical application packs to find suitable candidates in a very limited amount of time.

In other words, you first have to pass the scan test.

To do this you need to be very strategic about how your present yourself, and tell a compelling, consistent and clear “story” throughout your entire application – one that pulls the reader in and motivates them to give you a thorough review.

And once you’ve earned that review, your goal is for the admissions officer to have a clear picture of who you are as a person, as well as a student, by the time he or she has finished reading your file.

In other words, you want them to not just know WHAT you do, but also WHY.

What is the best way to tell a compelling story through your application?

For me there are two steps.

THE FIRST STEP is to live a compelling story! So when we think about strategy #1 in this post for example, the idea is to get involved in passion projects early and build a track record of participation and hopefully, eventually, leadership and/or innovation.

Throughout the rest of this series we will talk about specific strategies to employ within other components of your application, such as admissions essays and letter of recommendation, but for now the point is that the sooner you can start to get involved in activities, build relationships with teachers, find mentors, and build your academic credentials the better.

It’s much harder to cobble together a story late in the game – particularly if compatible experiences and relationships aren’t there.

Assuming you’ve achieved step #1, the next step is to be strategic about how your use your application “tools” to tell your story.

And to be clear…when I say, “be strategic”, I literally mean that you should sit down, map out what you want to communicate through your application, and devise a strategy to achieve that aim.

I’m working on an template to help you do this; so keep your eyes out, but in the meantime, what should you do?

The best thing you can do is to actually sit down and be very deliberate about mapping out your strategy

Let’s get a little more specific:

FIRST, I recommend you write down what you want the admissions officers to know about you (strengths, challenges, passions, gifts, unique qualities, accomplishments, personality traits, etc.). Then take some time to think about and prioritize these characteristics until you identify the few that you think:

  1. Really make you an attractive applicant
  2. Align with the target schools’ values/profile
  3. You can support with stories, examples, awards, etc.

Once you’ve done that, the next step is to identify which components of your application will best showcase these characteristics. The goal of this activity is to:

MAKE SURE that you aren’t wasting valuable “marketing” space by repeating information.

FIND a logical home for all the key points you want to make.

SECURE strategic letters of recommendation that align with the message you want to convey (more on how to do this in my next post)

Now to circle back for a minute, the reason it is important to trim the list to just a few characteristics is because, for most applications, the only tools you have at your disposal are 1-3 essays, your letters of recommendation, and your activity list and/or resume.

That’s not a lot of space in which to differentiate yourself (particularly when the essay themes are largely dictated for you), so again, you need to be strategic.

For example, you don’t want to repeat your academic grades or activities in your essay because they will have already been presented in your transcript and activity list. You want to write about something that either closes an application gap, brings something unique (and favorable) to light, or adds color to something exceptional that IS within your application, BUT is truly remarkable and warrants further explanation (I’ll also talk more about this in my next post.)

To recap:

Before you apply to a school you should have a clear idea of what you want to tell the admissions officer; then determine what is covered by your application, transcript, test scores and activity list, what is best covered by recommenders, and what you can/should address via essays. Then set that plan into motion carefully and thoughtfully.

Then, if your strategy is executed correctly, each component will bring unique value to your application, while also contributing a vital piece to the collective story of you!

Okay, that’s all for today. Don’t forget to check back in the coming days for parts two and three of this series or, better yet, sign-up for our mailing list and get notified when they are published!  If you found this post helpful you can also share it with your friends using the buttons on the left (or arrow below if you are reading this on a mobile phone).

Until next time – keep smiling!  You’ve got this!


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