Differentiating Yourself in the College Admission Process

by Diana Drake

‘Tis the college application season. While many high school seniors are hearing back from the schools to which they applied early action and early decision, others are finishing up their applications in time for early 2018 deadlines. Juniors are starting to realize that the new year will bring new priorities. Whatever the case, Global Youth has some useful advice to help you navigate through college admission – with some help from the Wharton School.

The Process, a program that aired on Sirius XM Channel 111, Business Radio powered by The Wharton School, offered guidance and insight into the college admission process. Host Eric J. Furda, the former dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, invited guests and experts to explore all aspects of the admission process, from discovery and decision-making to enrollment and transition. 

In the episode summarized below, Dean Furda spoke with Eileen Cunningham Feikens, director of college counseling at the Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey; David Charlow, a financial aid expert and co-founder of Access Applied, an online resource that helps people find colleges and pay for them; Scott Anderson, senior director for access and education at The Common Application (yes, that one); and Elizabeth Pleshette, director of college counseling at The Latin School of Chicago. They discussed how high school students can differentiate themselves in the college application process. Below are a few highlights:

Furda’s Best Advice: “As we’re discussing how to differentiate yourself in the college application process, it doesn’t have to mean more of a class or an extracurricular. I often describe extracurriculars as wanting your son or daughter to be competitive in something that they have that fire for or that desire for — athletics, student newspaper, government. A second piece that helps balance that is when I think of my young son who wants to compete in sports. I loved when I also saw him stand up there with the school choir. He wasn’t the one expected to win the game. He was just enjoying singing his lungs out and not having to be the star. A third piece [of differentiation] is family, rest and recharging. That [aspect of your life] could come out in public service or something that’s giving you a broader awareness than those [activities] that are present and in front of you the whole time.”

Feikens’ Best Advice: “I always tell students to find something you really enjoy and run with it. Thrive. Show that level of commitment. You can’t all be No. 1, but maybe you’ve gained a capacity to deal with uncertainty or failure. That’s a huge life skill. I’ve seen a shift where 15 years ago or so, the well-rounded applicant was the one that everyone was talking about. I think pointy applicants — the ones who aren’t necessarily well rounded but have an area of expertise or passion – really stand out.”

Charlow’s Best Advice: “I agree with this idea of the pointy applicant. Step back from the craziness of the college application process and do what you want to do, not what will play well on a college application.”

Anderson’s Best Advice: When it comes to the essay prompts on the Common Application, “In the instructions, there is a single question: ‘What do you want colleges to know about you other than your grades and test scores.’ The essay prompts…help students address that single question. You can approach it from many angles. The goal of the essay prompts is to help students see themselves in the essay somehow. One prompt may resonate with a student and another one may not. Washington Lee HS in Arlington, Va., decided this week to do an essay-writing workshop for their seniors. I had the privilege of reading essays from 10 kids. I asked them, ‘What is the one thing you want me to know about you after having read this?’ Only about half of them could answer that question! They needed to understand what they wanted to tell colleges about themselves. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to share information about themselves regardless of what prompt they choose.”

And a note on the ‘Additional Information’ section of the Common App: “Anything you feel like the application hasn’t let you communicate, here’s the opportunity to do so. Students can tailor that additional information to different schools if they want to. If I was applying to Penn and I had a lengthy family history with Penn, I could use the additional information section to explain that. And then when you send to another college, you can just wipe that portion clean and leave it blank.”

Pleshette’s Best Advice: “The key word is authenticity. [In the application process], you’re trying to be real and portray a narrative about your interests and strengths that is honest and realistic. Understanding that starts so much sooner than the two weeks before the application deadline. It’s important to start that conversation with families during sophomore or junior year. That frames their approach to this entire process and what colleges they research. It’s part of the process of becoming someone who is college-ready. This is not a curation process. You’re not building a museum exhibit and dusting off artifacts. It’s much more about cultivation and pursuing the things that matter for you. The lower-school kids who are building a résumé because they think this treadmill begins in 3rd grade, end up being fragile and filled with anxiety because they weren’t allowed to grow and develop in ways that they should have. When a kid can write about what she did and why she did it, it ends up having an energy on an application that is so different than ‘You told me to do this because I had to do it.’ You want to be less motivated by fear and more by [the fact] you did something because you liked it…[I would add that] we want to be helping students grow their characters. The students I work with who are able to communicate to colleges that they are aware of more than just themselves are always more successful candidates.”

Conversation Starters

What does it mean to be a “pointy” college applicant?

Elizabeth Pleshette says, “The students I work with who are able to communicate to colleges that they are aware of more than just themselves are always more successful candidates.” What does she mean by this? Do you see yourself or others getting caught up in the competitiveness of school and forgetting this?

What’s your best advice for college applicants? Share your thoughts and tips in the comment section of this article.

22 comments on “Differentiating Yourself in the College Admission Process

  1. Wow, I wish this was released before I submitted my application to Penn! As a Penn applicant who was unfortunately rejected applying Early Decision, I know the intense competition, rigor, and excellence that I was up against in this applicant pool. Having spoken to Penn students, alumni, and faculty, I learned throughout my junior and early senior year that differentiation, as mentioned in this article, was key to success in the application process. With my academic achievement being near-average with respect to the applicant pool, I knew that I had to stand out in other aspects of my application — extracurricular activities, essays, and everything else that was non-academic. As I worked to fulfill my passions and strive to be a better person, both inside and outside of class, I could feel a growth in myself — and possibly an acceptance letter — come about.

    However, that letter turned out to be the complete opposite — a rejection letter. Although I was quite disappointed and frustrated when I got rejected, it really allowed me to think deeply and reflect internally about my long-term goals and how I saw myself as a person. What I learned, after days of painfully dragging myself out of this frustration, is that there’s more to life than a college admissions process. My goals, ambitions, personality, friends, family, and faith that I’ve held onto for years are all still there, just as supportive as they were yesterday.

    My best advice for any high schooler, from a nervous freshman to a stressed-out senior, is to not become a slave to this application process. Keep excelling at what you do, and always focus on your internal growth as a genuine human being. It can be quite stressful trying to present yourself in the best light on a resume when there’s so much more you’re capable of outside of that resume. Don’t think of yourself as a 650-word essay, or a number from 0 to 4.0, or an SAT score from 0 to 1600. That’s all on paper — and everything else you’re capable of is outside that piece of paper. When Penn had the chance to claim me as a future alumnus on December 13th at 7:00 P.M., they unfortunately missed their shot. But that shouldn’t worry me as much as it should worry them, because they won’t have the opportunity to house my goals and growth for the next four years.

    Nevertheless, as you all continue forward with your special values, goals, and passions, there’s one thing that this college admissions process cannot take away from you — and that’s who you are as a person. Embrace it, and don’t worry if that ten-page electronic document doesn’t capture everything you’re truly capable of.

    Thanks K@WHS for this fantastic read!

    • Powerful words, Aneesh, and SO true! It’s incredibly easy to get entangled in the process and lose sight of what really matters, especially with all those excited posts from parents and classmates on Snap, Instagram and Facebook. You do learn so much through the college admission process; it forces people to reflect on who they are and what matters most in their lives. That comes more easily for some than others. Best of luck to you in whatever you do! We know you will bring your very best to the table!

    • I agree with your comment about not becoming a slave to the application process. As a senior, and even a junior I have been so focused on meeting the requirements of certain colleges, such as SAT scores that I have lost sight of who I am as a person. I find it very easy to become so entangled in the application process, which at times I take it too far. Although I did not apply to any schools that are as competitive as Penn, I still can relate to the pressure and anxiety that I faced when applying to schools.
      I wanted to ask you a question about your comment of not thinking of yourself as a number from 0 to 4.0 or an SAT score from 0 to 1600. While I understand what you are saying, does that mean you do not think it is important to try and earn the best possible GPA and the highest SAT scores possible? In today’s world many colleges put a lot of emphasis on a person’s GPA and SAT scores. Do you think that if a student has the mindset that their GPA or SAT scores are not a true measure of who they are, they might not try as hard? In other words, they might not think that having a good GPA and good SAT scores are not important? I am not saying I disagree with you, but I just wanted to ask. I definitely agree with your comment about how Penn missed their shot in accepting you into their school. I would like to say, however that one of the things I picked up from the article is being a well-rounded person. Did you have the extra-curricular activities and other qualities that Penn was looking for? Again, I am just asking.

    • It’s great that you don’t let the rejection kill your spirit! There is no reason to be upset that you were rejected, but to see it as another opportunity to use your skills and hard work somewhere else. Being rejected does not define a person’s worth, it just means that environment was not the best for you. To learn, you must go through trial and error to figure out whats right and best for your personality. Being rejected only means growth. After being rejected you should take the opportunity to differentiate your college applications to make them look more suitable. I am so happy you are able to move on, learn, and grow from this experience! Just remember to never give up and to always do your best, for that’s all you can do !

  2. A pointy college applicant is someone who may not have that many extracurriculars, but is passionate about and excels in a certain area. For example, a pointy college applicant may just be in one club such as debate, but he or she is passionate about it and always does well in competitions. On the other hand, another student may have been in a thousand extracurriculars just to impress colleges, but wasn’t an active member who showed major success in any of them.

    What Elizabeth Pleshette means by her statement is that colleges like to see applicants who volunteer and are an active part in their community. I do see myself as well as others getting so caught up in the competitiveness of school that we forget to acknowledge the everyday struggles of those around us or to see how we can improve our community. In addition, I feel like a lot of students aim for the number of volunteer hours they can get done, instead of focusing on the idea of actually helping others.

    My best advice for college applicants is to keep those grades up throughout your four years of high school, but to also take time to do what is important to you. You should also acknowledge that there are others who could use a helping hand, and that you could be that hand that brings them to a better state (regardless of whether or not doing so will look good to colleges). In the end, if you did your best, colleges will see that.

  3. 1. To be a pointy candidate is to be very focused on a specific subject or topic. This means that the candidate has preferred working on one thing that interests them and gotten very far in that rather than doing many things but not exploring them all to their full extent.
    2. She means that students who acknowledge others and know that their actions might have consequences on others are more successful. I find that in my personal life, I often see people caught up in the competitiveness of school, even me. If someone got a better grade than others on a quiz or test, they will naturally ant to show it off but this can hurt others. These actions do not show awareness of other people’s feelings.
    3. I think the best advice I can give to college applicants is to not leave your essays till the last minute. You will want to revise them various times before you submit your application and this is only possible if you get started early. If you start late it will only stress you out.

  4. Being a “pointy” applicant means having a specific area of expertise. In the past, well-rounded applicants represented the ideal student of most universities. Today, “pointy” students are becoming the top applicants at most universities. Rather than constructing picture-perfect images of themselves to show colleges, having vast knowledge on a certain subject allows for a more organic representation of the student.

    Students definitely get caught up in the competitiveness of school. As a result, they often end up overselling themselves in order to edge out other students with similar qualifications. By doing this, students neglect their individuality, which makes it hard for admissions officers to admit one student over another. In order to stand out, students should be genuine and be aware of more than just their own abilities. While knowing yourself is important, being aware of the impact of your actions is key to being a successful applicant according to Elizabeth Pleshette.

    I’m still a junior in high school, so I’m still figuring out the whole application and admissions process myself. One tip for students applying and those who still have time just as I do is to become more interesting. Not that you’re boring or anything. It’s just that most highschool students try to become well rounded, which often means being in six different clubs and activities just to impress colleges. This often leads to unnecessary stress and a cookie cutter application. Being interesting means doing something that may not exactly be easy, but is more manageable and impressive than being stretched thin across several typical activities. For example, you might be talented at programming and decide to write a handbook for kids on how to code. You spend maybe two or three hours per week writing the book, and you enjoy every minute of it. Even if you aren’t a varsity athlete, take six AP classes, and aren’t president of the student body all at the same time, you still appear just as, if not more impressive as student who are doing all these things. What if your book becomes a bestseller on Amazon? The fact is, regardless of level of success, doing something that is harder to explain than the typical high school activities can help you stand out among the mobs of students doing too many activities just to impress admissions officers.

  5. A “pointy” college applicant is the type of person that excels on many subjects with a lot of passion and pleasure, they can also really stand out as polite, and as “role model students”. They normally are not well rounded, and it can be hard to build trust with him/her. It is very important to be well rounded but in these days, pointy students can be seen as a symbol of knowledge and they are becoming top applicants at many universities. In other words, universities are being populated with people that have true loves about something; It can be a club, class, or teacher.
    Everyone is caught up in the competitiveness of school and it can be a really big problem because students often end up doing everything to beat their friends, and they forget what high school is about; what they are passionate about. As Elizabeth Pleshette said, knowing yourself is important, being aware of the impact of your actions is key to being a successful applicant.
    My advice for college applicants is to do what you love, be the best for you, not to the others. Participate in things that you like or are passionate about. You can keep your grades well throughout your high school years but remember, you need to save time for what is important to you.

  6. A pointy applicant is someone who excels in a specific subject matter, and is not very well rounded. I definitely see myself being a pointy applicant because although I cannot play sports or a musical instrument I do excel in the areas of visual arts and mathematics. I used to believe that people who were involved in many different extracurriculars would more likely get into college. Now I realize it is better to be excellent at one thing and not mediocre at 10 things.

    What Pleshette is saying is that the people who do things for others and not just to get into college are much more successful. For example, people join student government, but mostly so it looks good on resumes. Very few actually want to be in student government and make improvements for the student body. Sometimes when people are volunteering, they forget the real reason why they should be doing it. Volunteering is not for hours, it is to help people. However, most people just care about the quantity and not the quality. I do not see myself getting caught up in the competitiveness because I have always had a clear objective in mind. However, that can change along the way.

    The best advice I can give is not to college applicants, but to those who just entered high school. I recommend to start looking at the Common Application now and start filling it out. Look at what you should accomplish by the end of junior year. This will give you an idea of what you need and serve as a guide. Filling out the application when it matters will be much easier to someone who has looked at it before, than someone who is looking at the application for the first time.

  7. To be a “pointy” college applicant it means you aren’t super great at everything, but you have a really strong subject.
    What Elizabeth Pleshette means when she says “The students I work with who are able to communicate to colleges that they are aware of more than just themselves are always more successful candidates” is that the students who choose what they want to pursue and what makes them happy are more likely going to get into their dream college. I do see myself or others getting caught up in the competitiveness of school and forgetting this because sometimes you or others just want to become successful in a job that you don’t really care for, but you should always do what makes you happy.
    My best advice for college applicants is to choose something that makes you happy, but to also remember to try your hardest and try to push yourself enough to get good grades, but not to stress out.

  8. Sometimes people try to put as many different activities as they can when they apply for college, but I believe that it is at times better to show a larger impact you had in a certain area of school or extracurricular. A “pointy” student where they showed or excelled can better show themselves off to colleges rather than someone that has multiple minor accomplishments. Often by being involved in something you enjoy, you can see the impact that you will be having, rather than only doing something for yourself as another addition to a list on your college app. Regardless, anyone who is starting to apply to colleges should try to get a head start by choosing classes and activities that you will enjoy, and show how you excel in that area. Also, preparing for the ACT and SAT will help out tons, along with looking at colleges/majors you want to possibly go into.

  9. A pointy applicant is someone who stands out because of his high skills or someone persistent on a certain subject, without having to be average or good at everything. What Pleshette means by her quote is that many students are trying to do to as many things as possible to beat other students with similar qualifications. However, she is trying to say that students who pursue what they actually want and participate in activities they are actually going to work on because they like, are more successful than the others. I do see many getting caught up in the competiveness of school by taking high level courses they don’t like to earn a higher GPA and join many clubs so they can show them in their admission. My best advice for college applicants is to try a little of everything but then focus most of their attention to a certain subject they are interested in the most. Additionally, it is good to have some extracurricular activity or/and some leadership role in school.

  10. 1. A pointy applicant is one who stands out above others due to his or her skills and special with a certain subject. He or she may not be good at everything but they are strong in one area.
    2. The quote means that students are very competitive and try to succeed in everything. They push themselves very far. However, those that do what they actually love tend to end up more sucessful. Most students are occupied with their GPA and don’t focus on what they actually want.
    3. The best advice for applicants is to get involved in activities and make yourself stand out.

  11. 1) A pointy applicant is someone who stands out because of their vast knowledge for a certain skill of a subject. Although they are not a well rounded student this particular thing stands out for them.
    2) The quote is trying to say that students are becoming extremely competitive and try to succeed at everything they do. They should really just do what they love and they will be more successful instead of trying to do everything.
    3) My advice for applicants is to get involved in things that stand out to you and that you enjoy while keeping a high profile in your studies.

  12. 1. A pointy applicant is someone who stands out from everyone else due to his or her prowess in a specific skill or activity. This person is not necessarily good at everything, but is very good at one specific thing.

    2. The quote means that most people try to be the best and do the best in everything they can. They try as hard as possible. People who do this however do not really find out what they want to do. People who focus on what they want to do tend to be more successful. I find myself only worrying about my grades and not caring about what I actually enjoy doing.

    3. My best advice for college applicants would be to the best grades possible while still being able to focus on what they would like to do. I think having a good balance of these two things could make people become very successful.

  13. 1. A “pointy” college applicant is one that is not always considered well-rounded, but has a strong passion in a certain area in which he/she can speak with great detail and display his/her devotion to the particular interest.

    2. I believe what Pleshette is trying to convey to her audience is that students should recognize their are more people than just themselves applying to college. She says this to encourage students to acknowledge that others are competing for the same spots that one may be looking at, this could motivate a student to stand out and set themselves apart from the opposition. Yes, often I can find myself studying for extended periods of time thinking that I might be the top of my class, but fail to realize that many other kids are striving to achieve the same goal. This being said, I should probably branch out and try activities that not everbody else has attempted.

    3. Being only a sophomore in High School, my knowledge of the college application process is limited. Yet, I have gathered enough from past family members to know that differentiation is key. Why would a college want to take accept a student that fits the mold of at least thousands of others. Colleges value variety, so making oneself separated from the competition is no. 1 on the list of priorities for a college applicant.

  14. 1. A pointy applicant is a candidate that may not necessarily stand out during the application process due to the number of extracurriculars but can demonstrate mastery in one specific subject or area. Instead of trying to beat other students by doing many different things and being average at them, they can be considered the best of the best in their preferred subject.

    2. What Pleshette means by this is that it is very common for students nowadays to become consumed by the competitiveness that comes with applying to college. Many high schoolers focus on taking as many AP classes as they can and making sure that they have an amazing GPA and class ranking. This can, as a result, make these students forget of what is truly important which is finding something that you have a passion for and love. A college would rather see that you actually found something that really sparked your interest than seeing you take a few classes that all the top students take.

    3. I can’t talk a lot about the college application process from experience due to the fact that I am only in my sophomore year of high school but I believe that one smart thing to do is start early so that it is not too overwhelming in the end. Also try getting involved in your community both inside and outside of school to help make you stand out from the other applicants.

  15. A pointy applicant is one that is not the typical student. What I mean by this is that a pointy applicant does something because of passion not because it will look good on a college application. They might not have the best grades or are included in 20 extracurriculars, but they stand out in what they love to do. Many “pointy” applicants stand out to college administrators because they have passion and excel in what he/she does, this shows dedication.

    When Elizabeth Pleshette says, “The students I work with who are able to communicate to colleges that they are aware of more than just themselves are always more successful candidates.” she means that the students are aware that the whole world does not revolve around them, and that there are other that matter too. In jobs it is very important to work together and by one not thinking of him/herself it stand out because it shows that he/she will work with others more efficiently. A lot of the times I do find myself getting caught up in competitiveness at school and forgetting about this important aspect.

    My best advice to college applicants is to just follow your passion. If it means only having one extra curricular, make sure that you excel in whatever it is that you do. As a high school student in her sophomore year, I do not have the experience yet of the application process. I suggest not to just focus on clubs but to make sure that your grades are good because that will also be important. Taking a part in the community and helping others around you is also something I would recommend doing beacuse that shows a lot about someones character.

  16. A pointy college applicant is a student who is very passionate and involved in one particular area and learns to excel and thrive in it.
    I think this means that the students who are more involved to their community as well as having good grades in school excel in the college application process. Meanwhile, if students get too competitive and just focus on taking difficult classes they will have nothing else to write on their college applications and the student may be portrayed to colleges as selfish.
    Students need to be well rounded to help them have things to talk about on college applications and to have a healthy lifestyle. However, if students are not involved in all of their activities they will still struggle to talk about a subject in depth. I would suggest to pick one club, one sport, and hard classes to be highly involved in and look like an excelling and well rounded student.

  17. 1. A pointy college applicant is a student who demonstrates excellence in one specific topic but is not considered to be well rounded. This person is impassioned by a particular subject, and instead of being mediocre with their grades and extracurricular activities, they are strong in one specific topic.
    2. What Elizabeth Pleshette means is that students who understand that they aren’t the only focus in the world often do better than the students that choose to believe the world revolves around them. I often do see myself and others forgetting this and getting caught up in the schools competitiveness.
    3. My advice for applicants would be to try their hardest in every class while getting involved in clubs and extracurricular activities.

  18. A pointy college applicant is a student who demonstrates excellence in one specific topic but isn’t considered to be well rounded. A pointy students is also not mediocre with their grades and extracurricular activities.
    Elizabeth Pleshette means is that students who understand that they aren’t the only focus i the world often do better than students who believe the world revolves around them. I do see myself get caught up in my school competitiveness on a daily basis.
    My advice for students applying to their dream school is to focus an equal amount on every subject while balancing an after school activity.

  19. 1. In the radio show, they talk about “pointy” college applicants in relation to well-rounded applicants. The word “pointy” is used to represent students that aren’t spread across and involved in every aspect from chess club to the football, but rather they have a mastery and passion for one or few single areas.
    2. In the radio show, Elizabeth Pleshette means that most students are caught up in the motion of applying and getting accepted to college; So much that these students will do whatever they can to be well-rounded and be the students that colleges want. So these students, she explains, the ones who aren’t stuck on being the best at everything are the ones who’s passion and motivation is truly communicated to colleges. I definitely do see myself getting caught up in the competitiveness, with nearly 2,000 kids in my class it is nearly impossible to not get focused on doing better than everyone else and getting into the colleges of our dreams.
    3. My best advice for college applicants is to not set yourself up for failure. Not failure in the sense of not getting into the colleges you dream of, but failure with the meaning of not setting ourselves up to be drowning and suffering through our years of school. Don’t do the things that do not interest you because even if it gets you into college you will be living through years of suffering.

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