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College Essay Road Map

College Admissions: Passion vs Spin

I know that terrified look in your eyes. I see it in the students I work with. I see it in their parents’ faces. It’s the fear that you don’t stand out. Or, to use the buzzword that’s circulating among college admissions officers...

You’re terrified that you lack passion.

No need for terror. You can stand out. And you do have a passion. Because in college admissions, “passion” is just admissions officer-speak for shaping the story of your high school career in a way that helps you “pop.”

“Passion” is what college admissions officers see when your application and essays highlight something about you that makes you memorable.

Let me put it more bluntly:

In the college admissions process, “passion” is another word for "spin."

I don't mean that to sound cynical. In fact, your college application should be anything but an exercise in cynicism.

It should tell a credible story, a genuine story. But it should also tell the story you want those college admissions officers to walk away with once they've finished considering all your application materials. It should be your spin on your life.

Think about it this way:

College admissions officers look at thousands of applications each admit season. After they weed out the apps sent in by students who are clearly under-qualified, they’re still left with hundreds—and sometimes more—from bright, high-achieving students who have excelled in high school. Among those, there are always the superstars whose achievements are so outsized that they naturally pop.

As for all the other applicants, the burden is on them to show the admissions officers why they deserve a second look.

College Admissions:
Questions To Ask Before You Submit That Application...

Here's an all-to-common pitfall in the college admissions process: Students are so focused on stacking their resumes with dozens of extracurriculars and countless leadership positions that they actually fail to stand out.

That’s right: Too many extracurriculars can actually work against you, because an admissions officer is left wondering where your interests really lie, and what separates you from all the other students with six school clubs, three sports, five leadership positions, and two hundred hours working at the local food bank.

Now, if you have all those extracurriculars, I’m not saying you shouldn’t put them on your application. But before you start listing your achievements, take a moment to think about the story you’re trying to tell about yourself. And if you're planning to write your college application essay about one of these activities, take another moment to ask yourself:

  • Do your extracurriculars show a passion for leadership? Perhaps your college applications essays should help college admissions officers understand the roots of that passion, and how you see that passion shaping the direction you hope to taker in college.
  • Do your extracurriculars show a passion for helping others? Perhaps your college application essay could help college admissions officers see the roots of that desire. You might tell them a story that shows how helping others has changed you. Or explore how one extracurricular in particular was the catalyst for the direction you hope to take in college.
  • Do your extracurriculars shine a light on who you are? One of my students was a self-taught musician who used music to deal with an anxiety disorder. His college application essays told that story, helping admissions officers to catch a glimpse of what made him unique, memorable, and ultimately, a solid choice for admittance.

The college application essay, of course, is just one way to help an admissions officer understand your story—what makes you unique, memorable, and ultimately, a solid choice for admittance. Many schools also allow students to submit creative writing or other types of additional materials—all of which can help your unique story pop. And of course, there’s always the interview. You can use that face-to-face time with an admissions officer to make sure you bring the key points of your story into focus.

OK, so what if you've read all this and you're just feeling "passionless"? What if you feel like you don’t have great extracurriculars? What if you don’t feel like anything makes you unique?

Here's the good news:

Whatever you've done or haven't done, accomplished or left unaccomplished, there really is something about you that will make a college admissions officer sit up and take note.

I’ve helped students of all strengths and backgrounds find their story, so I can promise you that you do have something about you that makes you stand out. The trick is looking in on your life from the outside and asking what makes you interesting.

It all comes down to one question: What makes you you?

Using the College Admissions Process to Tell Your Story

To put it another way: Colleges get hundreds of applicants who are drum majors, coding whizzes, star athletes, or photographers with a huge social media following. Ask yourself: What makes me the drum major/coding/whiz/star athlete/(fill in the blank) that a college wants to admit? What makes me an applicant who’s unique enough that a college just has to say yes?

Figuring out your story—or, to put it in college admissions officer lingo, figuring out your “passion” or your “spike,” that thing that really makes you stand out—is the single most important part of the application phase.

  • DON’T start your applications until you’ve done this.
  • DO keep that passion/story/spike in mind with every phase of the application process.
  • DO bring it out in your essay, in your supplemental materials, and in your interview.
  • DO make it become your brand.

If this sounds a little forced, that’s OK. We’re not talking about something that has to determine your life in college over the next four years. We’re just talking about handing an admissions officer a snappy campaign slogan of sorts—something they can latch onto so that come “election day,” they remember to vote for you.


Tell Your Story
College Search Roadmap:
Step Five was last modified: August 7th, 2016 by Jenny Sawyer

Making a plan for your college application essay is the best way to tackle a monumental task.


Here are some tips on how to set up a roadmap for your essay or essays if you’re applying to many different colleges.


Finalize Your List


Before you look at each college application’s personal statements, make sure you have narrowed your list of colleges to apply to. Applying to too many institutions can burn you out and will make your roadmap too complicated. Make a spreadsheet that includes each college’s name, deadlines, essay prompts and priority to you.


Find Similarities


Once you start to enter each college’s essay prompts into your spreadsheet, you’ll quickly notice how similar some are. Although you shouldn’t copy and paste the same response for different applications, writing a skeleton and crafting unique essays from there will save you time and energy.


For example, if several applications feature the infamous “Why this college?” essay, start with a simple structure, such as an imaginary day in the life as a student there. Then research each individual college, its programs and courses. This allows you to individualize each essay while still working with the same structure.




Once you’ve completed your spreadsheet, use colors to prioritize colleges, designate progress made on each essay and to group similar essays together. Even if you’re only applying to a few institutions, color-coding provides much of the important information at a quick glance.


Set Daily Goals


Even with a color-coded spreadsheet to organize all your college applications, finishing the process is hard. Instead of procrastinating or trying to take big chunks of it at a time, consider your ability to focus and how much time you can dedicate each day. Make a schedule for which essays you want to work on and stick to it. Update your spreadsheet accordingly, and congratulate yourself on tackling the intimidating process of college applications in an efficient fashion.