At first glance, the college application appears to be a simple form. It's easy to complete and seeks only superficial information about the applicant's background, educational history, and various interests. By contrast, most teenagers reveal much more about themselves on Facebook, and because the digital generation is so habituated to self-revelation online, filling out the college application is to them just one more finger exercise in electronic disclosure.

But at colleges keenly interested in discerning the individual behind the numbers, the application is an information field rich with nuance and subtlety. Students who understand this will do a much better job of shaping the application's subtext to their advantage - highlighting positive features in their profile and avoiding mistakes that might have the reverse effect.

Application basics

About 80 percent of all college applications are submitted electronically these days. Online options include (1) an institution's unique form, (2) the Common Application (shared by about 460 colleges), and (3) the Universal College Application (shared by about 80 colleges), which distinguishes itself from the Common Application by being more accessible, faster, and easier to complete.

For colleges that offer more than one of these options, the applicant is free to select the one he or she prefers. By itself, the choice of application type has no influence on how the college perceives the applicant since the same kind of information is collected in each case. Presenting well is, rather, a function of establishing an overall message and then controlling its dissemination across all parts of the application. To illustrate this point, let's imagine a hypothetical student ('Bill') who has just completed his junior year at a local public school.


An excellent student, Bill wants to attend a smaller, highly selective college. He's a good athlete and plays the clarinet very well. His grandfather is a Native American with tribal enrollment; his mother is Asian. Bill's favorite subject is English.

Given all of these interesting features, which one should Bill emphasize as his 'message?' We can eliminate the academic angle since his strength as a student will be self-evident from the transcript, and highly selective colleges are flooded with applications from top students anyway. Bill's athletic ability, though good, isn't enough to make him a recruited player. He will certainly play intramural or club sports in college, and energetically support varsity teams, but that kind of involvement does not qualify as a powerful message. Finally, we can rule out the possibility of 'English major' as the dominant theme since it's one of the most common majors at liberal arts colleges and thus has no distinguishing value.

What is left to emphasize in Bill's case, therefore, is either music or family heritage. Bill's musical skill means that he can participate in campus ensembles - a very attractive factor at small colleges - and his minority status, though limited, could be very important to a smaller college seeking more students from a variety of backgrounds.

Connecting the dots

In talking to Bill at length, we find out that his interest in the Indian cultures of the Pacific Northwest is very strong - developing out of conversations with his grandfather, extensive reading on the topic, and frequent family trips to heritage sites in Oregon and Washington. A powerful theme or message to foreground, then, could be identity. It would be an authentic message, but just as important it would be especially appealing to colleges looking to enroll an interesting mix of students.

Very much aware of his message now, Bill can accentuate it as he responds to various items on the Common Application. For example, in the 'optional information' area focusing on demographics, Bill should definitely indicate that he is American Indian. Colleges consider one-quarter to be the minimum proportion of family background to justify an applicant's identification with a minority group. This is empirically true in Bill's case and deeply validated by the degree to which he identifies with this side of the family. Further, because Native Americans have less representation on college campuses than Asians (Bill's other heritage), the former is much more potent from the college's viewpoint.

The application provides additional opportunities for Bill to develop his message, including choice of major (comparative literature makes more sense than English), the order in which he lists extra-curricular activities of greatest interest, how he focuses on this message in the various essays, and so on.

As students on the verge of college fill out applications this summer and next fall, they should actively manage the image they are projecting - to make sure it is clear and powerful.

Tim Cantrick is an independent college counselor assisting families in Lake Oswego and throughout the greater Portland area.

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