How storytelling makes the difference with admissions officers

(Originally published at story2.com, May 11, 2016)

I recently read an article about a student who was accepted to all of the colleges he applied to, after raising his SAT score 720 points to a perfect 2,400.

The author, Brian Henge, describes the scene:

“A few weeks later when the results arrived, the entire family (including James) couldn’t believe that he had scored a perfect score of 2,400! The rest was history. James was accepted into all the schools that he applied to (including most of the Ivy Leagues) and chose[sic] Stanford for the Computer Science program (but of course my wife likes to believe that he chose Stanford to be closer to her).”

What caught my attention (besides that this was the old SAT scoring scale) wasn’t that the student raised his score more than 40%, or that he earned a perfect score — both, admittedly, impressive accomplishments. Rather, what caught my eye was that Henge claimed, without nuance, that his son’s perfect SAT score was the key to his admission to all of these colleges. In his own words, Henge was “absolutely convinced that [the perfect score] was the tipping point.”

But was it the tipping point? Was the perfect score the difference maker? What else might’ve made the difference?

Though all schools vary in the degree to which they place importance on test scores, high school grades, and high school class rigor for admissions, the schools Henge’s son applied to place relatively more emphasis on essays.

In a recent report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC):

  • private schools placed more emphasis on essays than public schools,
  • smaller schools placed more emphasis on essays than larger schools,
  • schools that accept fewer applicants placed more emphasis on essays than schools that accept more applicants.

In other words, selective colleges — like Stanford and those in the Ivy League — are more likely to value essays than other, less-selective colleges.

As Forbes contributor James Marshall Crotty noted:

“It’s important for students applying to any selective school, let alone the Ivies, to submit well-written, compelling essays that convey their voice, interests, who they are as a person and student, and how they would contribute to the campus community.”

If the goal of admissions officers is to find the most capable students who are the best fit for their schools, then such an emphasis on essays makes sense, especially considering that schools are receiving more applications now than in years past. According to the NACAC report, “For 10 of the past 15 years, more than 70 percent of colleges reported year-to-year application increases.”

Think about it: the more people who apply to any college, the greater the need for you, the applicant, to differentiate yourself from everyone else. The essay, better than any other component of the application, enables you to best reveal yourself to admissions officers. Through the essay, you’re able to show admissions officers who you are, what you have done, and how you are likely to enhance their community and college.

Plenty of people earned good grades, took tough classes, and have high test scores. But those factors aren’t differentiators. Those factors don’t show who you are, how you think, and what you value.

Fun fact: it turns out that nobody else is you. So by painting the picture of you, through compelling, authentic writing, you are connecting with admissions officers in a way that allows them to see you.

So what’s the best way to connect? Stories.

For readers, stories spark memories, evoke emotions, and compel action. We are storytelling animals. It’s science.

To best paint the picture of you for your college essays, let your storytelling DNA guide you. Consider a moment that challenged you to make a decision. Then, describe the choice you came to. And then share what you did afterwards as a result. This basic structure runs through most of the stories we tell and connect with.

For college admissions, such a connection can’t be found in a transcript or test report, and that connection — that human-to-human connection — makes all the difference.

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