Enhancing Your College Application

Many colleges require additional essays beyond the main Common Application (CA) essay. These essays appear on the colleges’ CA “supplement.” Forget about applying to all participating CA schools with just the CA. Lots of colleges, especially the more-to-most competitive ones, require additional information and essays on this nasty and time consuming additional form.

One of the more frequent supplemental essay prompts is the “Tell us something about yourself that we can’t find elsewhere on your application” challenge. A variation of this that you may encounter would be something like “What makes you unique?” The challenge here is to dig deep into your self-awareness and come up with still more interesting aspects of who you are, as if you already haven’t put enough effort into the rest of your CA information. I have seen many highly accomplished seniors struggle mightily with this question. Why is that?

First of all, many high school seniors don’t think of themselves as “unique.” They view themselves as fortunate just to be able to get through the tough courses they’re taking while having enough time to devote to all the activities in which they are involved. Add to this sleep deprivation. A surprising number high performers I’ve seen get five (sometimes fewer) hours of sleep during the school year. That’s not a prudent practice for a growing teenager.

Anyhow, I thought I would take a moment here and give you aspiring collegians a few tips on how to approach the “Anything else?”/”Unique” supplemental essay. By the way, some non-CA-subscribing colleges may ask this question as part of their regular application. Thus, forewarned is forearmed, whatever that means.

So, here are some approaches that may be of use to you. Why? Well, because there’s no one else like you in the world, right? You are unique and you have much to tell a college about who you are that won’t appear on the rest of your application. Remember — if you don’t speak up for yourself in this essay, no one else will. Now get ready to be unique!

The mission here is to respond to a prompt that will look something like this:

Beyond your impressive academic credentials and extracurricular accomplishments,what else makes you unique and colorful? We know nobody fits neatly into 500 words or less, but you can provide us with some suggestion of the type of person you are. Anything goes! Inspire us, impress us or just make us laugh. Think of this optional opportunity as show and tell by proxy and with attitude.

[This is an actual, official essay prompt, by the way. I’m tempted to send a note to the college that wrote this prompt and remind them that the proper usage is “500 words or fewer.” But I digress.]

This is a wonderfully wide-open prompt. I especially like this part: “Anything goes! Inspire us, impress us or just make us laugh. Think of this optional opportunity as show and tell by proxy and with attitude.”

Even if the version of your “Anything else?”/”Unique” prompt doesn’t reference humor or making them laugh, keep that approach in mind. If you can make an admissions reader smile (or even laugh), you’ll score some points in your favor. Don’t believe me? Try to imagine the hundreds (maybe thousands) of deadly dull essays these people read every admissions season. If you can make an impression with some genuine humor, then you’ve gone a long way in accomplishing your mission.

An example of applying humor came from one of my clients a while ago. The prompt asked about uniqueness, so I asked this senior to send me a list of aspects that, in her view, made her unique. From our communications, I sensed that she had a good sense of humor. She sent me her list and I had to laugh at a few of her answers to my questionnaire, especially these two:  “I’m also the best lie detector when it comes to my brother” and “I can recite the script of any SpongeBob or PowerPuff Girls episode on request.”

I can almost guarantee that the admissions offices across America wouldn’t be seeing an applicant that (or maybe any) year making those intriguing claims. So, I was right. My client not only had a good sense of humor, but she was also “unique.”

So, I suggested that she consider using a humorous approach to this essay. I’m not talking about a Jay Leno routine or David Letterman Top 10 list, but writing about herself in a manner that shows she’s someone who has aspects other than stellar academic accomplishments. To repeat: If you can make an admissions officer laugh (or even smile), as she did for me with her list, you’re halfway home.

She agreed with my strategy for an approach, so I gave her suggestions on how to get started:

Re: “I’m also the best lie detector when it comes to my brother.” — I asked her if she was an intuitively good judge of others, too? In other words, could she tell a lot about a person quickly, even if she had just met them? This young woman’s goal was to become a doctor. I told her that having good instincts and sensitivity about people is also a big plus for physicians in dealing with their patients. I advised her not to mention being a doctor in this essay, though, since that information was abundantly clear in other parts of her application. I anticipated that her readers, especially those involved with her admission to to BS/MD programs, would likely pick up on this trait of intuition and it could be a plus for her, in their eyes.

Next, I suggested a possible structure for the essay:

– Introduction: I thought a great opening sentence would be: “When it comes to my brother, I’m the world’s best lie detector.” From there, she could explain why this is true. First, she could write a little about her brother. What kind of a person is he and what is it about him that makes him so easy to read and “detect”? To end this paragraph, I suggested mentioning an example or two of when she was able to catch him in an “untruth” (that sounds better than “lie”). Length of paragraph: 100-150 words.

– Following paragraphs: The opening sentence of her second paragraph could be a transition into the broader area of her ability to read other people intuitively. Maybe something like: “My abilities as a walking polygraph have served me well in circumstances outside my home, when I’m (thankfully) away from my brother.” … This would open the door for her to tell us about her experiences “reading” others. Those “others” could be her friends, classmates, relatives (dare we say “parents”?), even characters in movies or TV shows. Writing about these experiences can occupy several hundred words (maybe two-three more paragraphs).

As for movies and TV, she could spin off on her “I can recite the script of any SpongeBob or Powerpuff Girls episode on request” remark. She could mention how she was sometimes able to anticipate a character’s actions or words because of her “detection” instincts. This may sound silly, but again, keep in mind all the predictable drivel admissions readers see in the tons of applications they receive every year. Remember what the prompt says: “Anything goes! Inspire us, impress us or just make us laugh. Think of this optional opportunity as show and tell by proxy and with attitude.” Or something similar to that, depending on the college.

So, if you can write about the aspects of a similar approach, with the proper “attitude,” you should be able to come up with three or four quality paragraphs that total 400-450 words, all of which will culminate in …

– The close: One of the most overlooked weapons in college essays is the close, your essay’s final words. In my view, the best close is a short paragraph comprising just a few sentences. Give them something by which to remember you! A great close also refers back to what you said in the opening. I call this “circularity.” For example, I suggested that my client’s close might say something like this:

“So, those are the advantages of being a detector of untruths and the natures of others. I could have written more about this, but my brother just said that SpongeBob is on. He wouldn’t lie about that! Would he?”

These are my suggestions on how to approach and get started on your “Anything else?”/”Unique” essay. The “bonus” from writing this essay is that you’ll then have great material from which to pull your response(s) for other colleges’ “What makes you you?” prompts, such as this combo prompt:

Discuss one thing about you that is unique and that has not been addressed anywhere else in this application.

Try to have some fun with this, rather than view it as drudgery. You’ll be glad that you did and hopefully improve your admission chances.