Last year’s admissions cycle produced the lowest acceptance rates in history at Ivy League schools and at most other elite colleges in the nation. Harvard’s acceptance rate for the class of 2023 was 4.5%; Princeton admitted 5.8% and Columbia 5.1% of their applicants; Stanford only accepted 4.2% of its applicants.
With such low acceptance rates at top colleges, families are looking for new ways to beat the odds and stand out in the college admissions process. Creating a student brand will help you hone your talents and passions, and communicate your unique value to admissions officers.
Grades and test scores alone won’t get you into elite colleges
Admission to elite colleges can no longer be assured by high grades and stellar test scores. As the former Harvard president Drew Faust once said: “We could fill our class twice over with valedictorians.” This statement is now true for most top tier colleges in the nation. Elite schools in the U.S. are looking for more than academically enthusiastic students: they’re looking for students who can show true initiative and committed, focused interests beyond the classroom. Developing a student brand early on can help you identify the right pursuits for your unique personality and stay on track to becoming an exceptional applicant.
What is a “student brand”?
You know you need to study hard and prepare diligently for your standardized tests. You probably also know that it’s important to do non-academic things as well: maybe your high school even has certain extracurricular requirements, like community service and sports. Of course, nothing you are required to do is going to help you stand out when the time comes to apply to college. So how should you spend your own time? What kinds of activities should you pursue? This is where your student brand will help to orient you: I like to think of it as the guiding principle for making smart decisions in high school. A student brand paints a compelling, coherent picture of yourself. Keeping your unique, coherent identity in mind will enable you to spend your time wisely, and choose activities that will reinforce your student brand and make you attractive to top colleges.
How to build your student brand
1. Focusing talent and strengths
The first step in creating and developing your student brand is to identify your talents and strengths.
In high school as in life, play to your strengths. What qualities or abilities do your teachers, coaches, mentors, classmates, friends and family value most in you? Which academic subjects and extracurricular activities come naturally to you? Take some time to reflect. I encourage you to make your own list of your best abilities, and then interview those around you and compare
2. Focusing passion
Once you’ve identified the activities and academic subjects you are uniquely suited to, think about your passions. Often, the things we love doing are those we are naturally good at. In high school, however, your passion for street art or skateboarding may not be fully appreciated by your teachers. That is not a reason to give up on the activities you love doing. Your student brand is equal parts talent and passion, and with a little creativity, you can always find a way to pursue impressive projects at the intersection of the two.
Very often, students make the mistake of trying to engage in many different activities throughout high school. Unfortunately, the price you will pay for trying to be well-rounded is not having any truly outstanding accomplishments, or any evidence of sustained commitment.
Maintain your focus, and remember your student brand—that coherent picture of your best self. When planning your summer, ask yourself what kind of endeavor best fits your brand. When selecting your AP classes and extracurricular activities, ask yourself the same question.
If you’re still unsure of how to go about combining your passion and talents, take a look at the table below. It gives examples of activities you can explore at the intersection of your passions and talents.
Gain public recognition
Once you’ve started exploring activities that combine your passion and your talent, you should try to find ways to gain public recognition and scale your activities.
Public recognition is what makes a student truly outstanding. Starting a non-profit is great, but gaining third-party recognition is even better. If your non-profit can garner positive reviews on TV or in newspapers, you can drastically increase your chance of admission to elite colleges. Third-party recognition can take many different forms: publications, newspaper profiles, awards, or TV appearances. You shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to local and national newspapers if you believe your story is unique. Very few young people have the courage to take this initiative, but the media are always eager to cover inspiring and unusual stories.
Don’t be afraid to think big and always keep in mind that scaling up your activities and public recognition add value to your image and ultimately to your college application. If you’ve made an impact locally, try to expand to the national and even international levels.
Why a brand matters
Ultimately, top colleges are looking for students who can add value to their image and reputation. Simply put, every college is image-conscious and looking for leaders who can make, or have already made, a difference in the world. Focusing on your student brand early on will allow you to become a high achiever in the areas that interest you most, and express your uniqueness when the time comes to apply to college.
By crafting your student brand early on, you’ll be able to focus on the things you love and do best. This will help you rise above the competition and increase your chances of getting into your dream school.