Differentiation in College Admissions

I haven’t really discussed this much, or at all, but over the past year I have started providing coaching services to other independent educational consultants. To be honest, it’s been really fun for me- like a “brain break” of sorts from working with teenagers all day (obviously, I love working with my students but sometimes it’s nice to interact with adults too). I didn’t intend to go down this path at all, but other educational consultants kept coming to me for advice and the opportunity just sort of just fell into my lap.

Through these conversations, I’ve been thinking a lot about a lesson I actually learned back during my own freshman year in college. (Little known fact: even though I graduated as an English major, I entered Wash U as an accounting major despite the fact that I hate math and I’m terrible at it. My mom thought accounting would be practical. I mean, she was right, it is practical, but not for someone who is terrible at math!).

I learned in Management 100 that the most successful businesses don’t just do things better than other businesses - they do things differently.

Case Study #1 on Differentiation: Southwest Airlines

Case Study #1 on Differentiation: Southwest Airlines

If you really think about it, this sort of goes against our natural inclinations - or at least mine. I am a little (ok a lot!) Type A and competitive, and I want to be the best. At everything. If I’m going to be a college counselor, you better believe I’m going to be the best one out there!

That’s not going to result in a successful business, though. The reality, we learned, was that there’s always going to be someone else who can do things faster, better, cheaper. And if there’s not someone better today, there will be tomorrow. The companies thinking outside the box and really differentiating themselves are the ones that win in the long term.

From a business perspective, I’ve always done that with DC College Counseling. Obviously, like I said, I do want to be the best and I think I am :) but I also do things very differently than others. I provide an unparalleled level of project management support that I’ve discussed before. I honestly think I’m the only college counselor in the country that operates this way and it makes a difference in my bottom line. People trust my team to get things done. Or, I should say, people trust us to make sure their kids get things done!

I had a dad call me from his vacation in the South of France last week in a panic. He asked me to call his daughter, a former client, to make sure she took care of something important because she wasn’t listening to him and he didn’t know what else to do. We laughed about it together because it was funny, but at the same time it warmed my heart that to know that he would think to call me of all people. He was right, though: I was able to resolve the whole situation in five minutes. Vacation saved! And that’s why people hire me.

Teenagers can learn from this too. I see so many students trying to be the “best,” but in a really generic way. And again, I can understand and identify with this mentality. But sometimes you have to ask yourself - to what end? Recently I had a student in my office who earned a 1580 on the SAT on the first try (I know, right! Smart kid). I told him not to worry about retaking it. His mom looked at me like I had three heads. I’m sorry, but there is zero reason why that kid should be forced to retake the SAT. He might get in to his top choice school and he might not, but his admissions decisions will have absolutely nothing to do with whether he applies with a 1580, 1590 or a 1600.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not saying that test scores don’t matter. Not even a little bit. They matter A LOT. You can differentiate yourself all day long and it won’t matter to a highly selective school if your test scores and grades aren’t strong.

It’s just that once you get to the point where you’re already excelling, you don’t need to make yourself crazy by attempting to achieve the tippy-top level of mainstream perfection. Sure, you can take six APs during senior year but there’s always going to be that girl who took seven. Or who self-studied for AP Music Theory on the side. It’s so much better to put that effort into differentiating yourself from the masses.

Here are a few examples of memorable ways that some of my students have differentiated themselves:

  • An absolutely BRILLIANT student whose resume would put a grown adult’s to shame wrote his college essay about how the best part of his ultra-impressive internship was eating lunch with his coworkers. It was such a funny, amazing essay. I still think about it. 99% of the other kids in his position would have written something really boring about programming to try to look smart.

  • A current student studied abroad during high school - not just a summer program but actually took it upon herself to enroll at a high school in a foreign country. This isn’t typical at her school at all - she just did it on her own for the experience. How cool is that!

  • I’ve told this story a million times, but a student with whom I worked a few years back set up this really interesting neighborhood website to connect elderly people needing snow removal with high school students looking to make money. Ultimately it expanded to include babysitters too. It ended up being a HUGE success and he became a local celebrity of sorts, no kidding! I think it took him something like three hours to set up while he was watching tv on a snow day, but now he’s at an Ivy League school.

  • One of my favorite graduating seniors was actually NOT a perfect straight-A student but was probably the most interesting person I’ve ever met. She has a very unusual interest (so unusual I can’t even really write about it without outing her) and she was able to monetize by turning it into a profitable local business.

  • Another favorite graduating senior wrote her essay about her favorite reality tv show. IT WAS SO GOOD. It started out with her mom yelling at her for watching “that trashy show” (lol) and led into the unexpected lessons she learned from it. Wow, I loved that essay!

I could go on and on.. but the point is, differentiate! And pay attention in class because you may just remember snippets of useful information fifteen years down the line :)

Work smarter, not harder (but don’t take it too far!)

In our work tracking the pre-release of the HS Class of 2020 / College Class of 2024 supplemental essay prompts, we have begun to link similar prompts together. This allows students to reuse as much material as possible while making modifications to existing essays, rather than reinventing the wheel for each school.

We share this information with our students to try to make things as easy as possible for them as we help them outline their essays.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The key to success with this method is making sure that students ACTUALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION ASKED IN EACH PROMPT. Most of these can’t be copied verbatim- they need some adjustment.

Here’s an example:

Boston College Supplement Essay #1 (400 w): Great art evokes a sense of wonder. It nourishes the mind and spirit. Is there a particular song, poem, speech, or novel from which you have drawn insight or inspiration?

UVA College of Arts and Sciences Supplemental Essay (250 w): What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?

Dartmouth College Supplemental Essay D (250 w): “Yes, books are dangerous,” young people’s novelist Pete Hautman proclaimed. “They should be dangerous—they contain ideas.” What book or story captured your imagination through the ideas it revealed to you? Share how those ideas influenced you.

Emory University “Tell Us About You” Essay 1 (150 w): Which book, character, song, or piece of work (fiction or non-fiction) represents you, and why?

By choosing to write about a novel, a student could theoretically write about one work while meeting the requirements for each prompt:

  • A “novel” for BC

  • A “work of literature” for UVA

  • A“book or story” for Dartmouth

  • A “book” for Emory.

2020 Supplemental Essays

This is SO much easier than writing about a song for Emory, a story for Dartmouth, a work of science for UVA and a speech for BC.

However, the prompts aren’t all the same: the student would need to modify the response for each school to varying degrees.

BC and UVA are pretty similar - drawing insight and inspiration from a book can be discussed in a way that = feeling challenged from a book. On the other hand, Emory’s approach about how the book represents the student would require substantially more tailoring. The reason I keep emphasizing the modification is because a lot of students miss this step, for some reason. They see a similar prompt and just copy verbatim and call it a day. I’m all about shortcuts but that will NOT work!!

To recap:

  1. Look for themes across prompts.

  2. Adjust the responses to fit the exact questions asked.

Reader Questions: Voice

Today, we are back with the last post of our “Reader Questions” series! Have a burning question about school, college, or graduate admissions, or even high school in general? Please shoot us an email and we will add it to the queue for the next round!

Q: After attending information sessions with my daughter, I noticed that admissions officers at all types of schools recommend that students write an essay that shows their “ voice.” I am not sure that I understand what voice is and how to show it? How will they actually know whether it is her voice or not?

A: In writing, the concept of voice generally refers to the author’s style - their unique tone, characteristics, and personality. Basically, it’s what makes the piece “sound” like the author. You are right that admissions officers discuss this a lot! This is because many parents (and college counselors) try to take over the essay process. Admissions officers WILL KNOW if an essay is written in your daughter’s voice. Keep reading for an example at the end of this post.

Student Writing College Essay

It is natural for parents to want to do everything in their power to make sure their children are offered the best college opportunities possible. As a result, it can be very tempting for parents to exert too much control over their children’s college essays, both in terms of topic selection and the manner in which the essay is written. Sometimes, parents may even think about writing the entire college essay for their kids. Either way, the result is usually the same. The college admission officer will see that a parent or other adult became overly involved in the writing process, and most likely, this will also make them wonder what other aspects of a student’s academic career a parent has influenced, leading the child’s integrity to be questioned.  

Colleges value the personal statement as an opportunity to get to know students “off paper.” It is one of the few opportunities students have to distinguish themselves from the thousands of otherwise similar applicants with straight As and high test scores. By the time students begin considering their college essays, it’s one of the only part of the application that they can still fully control (if only we could go back to repeat ninth grade math class for a better grade...). This is why it is so important for students to maintain control of their essay--it is their opportunity to share what matters to them, which is typically something that is not reflected in the rest of the application. When parents become too involved in this part of the process, the essay will often be riddled with clichés and thesaurized vocabulary. And when “sounding smart” and writing about what one thinks an adult wants to hear becomes the focus, the authentic voice of the student becomes lost.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t read your child’s essay? Not at all. But know where to draw the line. It’s very, very hard to get this right - even for professionals - so I can completely commiserate. I think it’s actually harder for parents who write a lot in their “day jobs,” because they usually have a professionally-trained written voice that is about as far off as you can get from teenage creative writing. No one struggles with this more than attorneys! After years of trying to achieve the perfect balance ourselves, we adopted the WOW Writing Workshop method and have never looked back.

Aside from limiting parental involvement in the college essay, there are several other steps that students can take to make sure their essays provide a clear understanding of their personalities. Essays with voice are essays that sound natural. This does not mean that they should be written in the way that a student speaks or texts, but it does mean that it must sound like a teenager wrote it. The essay should tackle a topic that matters to the student. Sometimes, the best essays are about everyday, ordinary situations that reveal something meaningful about the writer. Strong college essays are descriptive, precise, and perhaps most importantly, honest. And while the essay should not be over-edited by an adult, it should be clean, or error-free with regard to grammar, punctuation, and spelling. This will allow the student’s ideas, and thus their distinct point-of-view, to be the focus.

Let’s take a look at a few opening sentences of an essay written from an adult’s perspective, and then from a student’s:

Adult’s Perspective

When I consider the aspects of my childhood that have most influenced my identity as a soon-to-be college student, the many traditions and rituals my family has built over time immediately come to mind. Our Christmas traditions, which include wearing matching Christmas pajamas and eating a fondue feast every Christmas Eve, have been especially monumental in teaching me the importance of valuing the little moments in life.

Student’s Perspective

By the time one enters high school, wearing matching outfits officially becomes uncool. But every year, for just one day, my brothers and I enthusiastically commit this form of social self-slaughter. Clad in our red and white, tight-in-all-the-wrong-places PJs, every member of my family of six squeezes onto our living room couch for our annual Christmas photo--perhaps the only time that my teenage brothers and I agree to be photographed without objection.

Be honest...which essay would you rather read? Which one sounds like it was written by a student? Which one seems like it will tell an interesting story, rather than simply answer a question? The second one is better because it is written in student-friendly language that is still “clean.” It also reveals an important part of the student’s life--one that an admission officer definitely wouldn’t know about otherwise--in a vivid, unique way.

If you do feel like you need some extra help, please reach out. Most of the 11th grade students working with us on an ongoing basis are either finished with their main essay or just about there! Set up an appointment today for a “Meet & Greet” to discuss how we can support your family.

This year, I am thankful for WOW Writing Workshop!


It is finally that time of year again: everything has settled down, almost all applications are in, and we at DC College Counseling can reflect on the entire admissions cycle while everything is still fresh in our minds. Without question, the best decision that we made for the Class of 2019 was to undergo training in the WOW Writing Workshop method. As soon as I finished, I knew that we had to put it into use immediately, which we did! I’m happy to report that it was wildly successful, resulting in the best set of college essays I have ever seen - truly.

We are absolutely certain that this tried and true approach is the single best way to coach students to build essays that will result in acceptance letters from their top-choice schools, and I am excited to share a bit more about it here.  Students with a variety of writing skills and abilities are able to craft thoughtfully written stories that showcase who they are and why colleges should select them. Best of all, it’s not a painful process in the slightest!

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the WOW Writing Workshop is its focus on using the student’s voice - not mine, the essay coaches in our office, or their parents. I know firsthand that undergraduate admissions departments can instantly spot an essay that a student did not actually write (check out this article from the New York Times for more on that topic). Through the WOW Writing Workshop, on the other hand, all students are given the command to use their own voice and truly sell themselves in an authentic way.

The guided step-by-step program begins with understanding the essay prompts, such as those belonging to the Common Application and the Coalition Application.  This first step is critical to writing a series of captivating essays, as students can often miss the mark when they just jump right in to outlining the story they wish to tell.

The subsequent steps that lead up to the actual writing of the essay include brainstorming exercises, story ideas and themes centralized around what the student wants the admissions office to learn about him or her beyond test scores, activities and awards.  Instead of students regurgitating information seen in other parts of their application, the essays that allow students to stand out and shine, displaying unique aspects of their personalities, leadership styles or defining moments that shaped who they are or what they wish to study in their undergraduate curriculum.

Each step of the WOW Writing Workshop is matched with a video and set of exercises to keep each student on task and accountable.  This ensures that by Step 5, “Write Draft 1,” students are confident that they are answering the prompt correctly and to their best ability.  After the first draft is written, the remaining steps of the workshop focus on polishing and refining.

When it comes to revisions, the WOW Writing Workshop trains students to see their essays with a fresh set of eyes.  Alongside the students, the essay coaches and I will ask questions to fill in any potential storyline gaps and encourage additional detailed descriptions to really set the scene before tackling grammar and spelling corrections.  In the final two steps of the program, we will examine the essay and its prompt with a fine-tooth comb.  At the conclusion of the process, students will hold an exceptionally written essay that exhibits the “WOW factor.”

I have to admit that the last benefit of this program was somewhat unexpected. I have heard from a number of senior parents this year who felt that the process actually helped their students become better writers as a whole; not only were their students taking the steps needed to maximize the likelihood of acceptance letters from the schools of their dreams, they were simultaneously developing much-needed skills for the future. We are very excited to continue WOW with our next crop of students in the Class of 2020!