The Power of a Cohesive College Application
This is one of the most important pieces of writing about admissions we’ve done. It starts with a saying my high school history teacher used to lay on the class every Wednesday: “History doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
That is, a historical moment can only be appreciated in context—when one analyzes the interconnectedness of the events that preceded it.
The same concept is the golden rule of every admissions office. This fact has big implications for how you approach your application. On day 1 in offices across the country, thousands of junior officers are taught a simple rule:
No part of a college application—not the resume, nor the transcript, nor the personal statement, nor the supplemental essays—exists in a vacuum. Everything in your file, down to your email correspondences with the admissions office, is taken together.
Admissions officers are trained to look for coexistence and synergy. The forces that tie these disparate elements together into a coherent and nuanced picture of who you, the applicant, are.
This training leads to a simple equation. Coherent applications = good applications. Non-coherent applications? Well, they tend to be bad. They also tend to be incredibly frequently occurring. That’s no one’s fault. Thinking about yourself holistically is hard. It takes a careful and detached set of eyes to point out the hidden narrative that ties your file together.
But to create successful college applications, there’s no higher goal. For an admissions officer who only has 7.5 minutes to review your file, it’s the cohesive applications that make it through to the next round.
So here it is, actionable advice about how to create a cohesive narrative for your college applications.
Figure out what your “thing” is, and point each section toward it
Our team has been on both sides of the desk. We’ve worked as voting admissions officers in the most selective admissions offices in the country. As consultants, we’ve also worked with students who are shooting their shot at the very same.
In our client work, we always start in the same place: figuring out what someone’s “thing” is, and crafting a battle plan for building the application around it.
We spend some time in an early session asking questions like:
“Who are you?”
“What do you need admissions to know about you?”
“What is the thesis of your application?”
“Why should they admit you?”
If these questions seem introspective, it’s because they are. Applying to college is a process of reflection and creation. Asking these tough, nebulous questions is ultimately where the best applications begin.
Your answers should eventually boil down to a few words or a sentence about who you are. Each section of your application will all point to this persona. Here are some examples from students we’ve worked with over the past few years:
- “I use technology to make healthcare more accessible, especially for people in underserved communities.”
- “I apply linguistic principles to political discourse and speeches to help connect people with leaders who represent them.”
- “I help elementary school students see themselves as scientists and engineers by teaching them to build basic websites, and use my people skills to recruit like-minded peers to scale this project.”
- “I am helping my generation become financially literate and understand entrepreneurship through my non-profit, podcast, and school club.”
Sounds pretty clear, right? Well, none of those students started with a clear sense of their narrative. They got there only through a lot of critical introspection and head-scratching.
But once a “thesis statement” like this is unlocked, you can begin to imagine how the student’s personal statements, supplemental essays, and extracurricular section fall into place.
Once the thesis is clear, each section of the application can do its job. For example, the first student above might write:
- A personal statement that reflects on personally experiencing the pitfalls of the healthcare system for rural communities.
- An extracurricular supplemental essay that describes a machine learning research project they worked on to identify moles as possible skin cancer through an iPhone app.
- A second “Why us?” supplemental that connects their interests with specific labs, clubs, and coursework the college offers.
The resume proves the claim empirically. The supplementals contextualize the most defining extracurriculars and experiences. The personal statement brings the whole story into a vulnerable, personal register.
It all works together, telling a common, cohesive story.
You transform from just another sheet of paper into a real human being.
Pointing everything in your application towards your persona accomplishes two goals:
- Your time-pressed admission officer can quickly understand who you are as an applicant
- They can easily tell your story to an admissions committee to advocate for you
Trust us: your admission officer’s job is to advocate for you. Your job is to make their job easier. This is how it’s done.
So, start by asking those questions. Take some time. Have a friend or mentor discuss them with you. See where your answers take you. This isn’t about pigeonholing yourself, it’s about being clear and cohesive.
Your admission officer will thank you.
If you want personal help with this kind of thing, you can reach out to us. This is the work we do best. It’s also a central focus of the Essay Academy, our self-paced course that helps students write standout college essays.
You can do it.