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Last updated May 4, 2023

Every piece we write is researched and vetted by a former admissions officer. Read about our mission to pull back the admissions curtain.

Building a Moat

Key Takeaway

Want to differentiate yourself from the sea of other equally-qualified applicants? Build a moat—a part of your application that defines your personal brand and takes your application to the next level.

There are surprisingly many good conceptual analogies between college admissions and business.

We often talk about “brand” being one of them. For a company, having a clear, strong brand is essential: a good brand yields positive attachments to your business or product from customers.

A major goal of your application is to create a “personal brand”  â€” a memorable identity that admissions officers take with them when they walk away from your application. In a process overrun by sameness, individuality conveyed through a strong, unique brand is key.

Another related analogy — the concept of a “moat.”

In business, a brand attracts consumers; it’s a nebulous cloud of associations that people form with you, your company, your work.

Moats are the concrete advantages that hold customers in place. They’re the things you have that no one else does, your competitive advantages and differentiating factors.

Think about two technology companies—Apple and Tesla. Which has a better moat?

They both have clearly defined brands that draw in different types of customers. But I would argue that Apple—with its App Store, iOS operating system, and ubiquitous adoption of its products—has a much deeper moat than Tesla. Apple has infrastructural advantages that make it hard for a customer to justify leaving its product stream. These advantages run deep: they’ve been carefully architected over a very long period of time.

In college admissions, you want to have a moat. A factor in your application that is so irreplicable that you escape the sea of sameness and enter into your own category.

Your moat is sharp and specific—some people think about it as a “spike” in your application. Examples:

  • Application Moat (specific): 6-month internship working in the Mekong Delta gathering data about plant species to train a new neural network.
  • Application Brand (general): A precocious, culturally-literate computer scientist planted firmly at the intersection of machine learning and ecological conservation.

Your moat is the thing that, when an admissions officer looks at your application, they stop and say “damn.”

It’s the single experience that crystalizes the brand you’re building across your written work. Often, it will also be the central focus of one of your essays — either a supplemental statement (maybe a “Why Us” or “Academic Interest” essay) or perhaps your personal statement itself.

The best application moats take time to develop. You can’t land an utterly unique internship or conduct a groundbreaking research project overnight. The best moats (or spikes, if you want) are the culmination of carefully-laid plans that develop over years.

Build moats. It’s the best way to stand out.

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