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Articles / Applying to College / How to Enhance Your Profile in a Test-Optional Admissions Climate

How to Enhance Your Profile in a Test-Optional Admissions Climate

N Written by Nina Berler | Aug. 18, 2022
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Photo by Blue Bird

It’s All About the Supplements!

In my discussions with parents and students, and other college counselors, I've noticed that many people are still putting a lot of emphasis on using standardized testing scores to stand out in the admissions process. Now that test-optional is the norm, applicants need to carefully consider how to take advantage of every opportunity presented to differentiate themselves in the admissions process. This is particularly important for those students who seek admission to highly selective colleges and universities that continue to report unprecedented application volumes.

So applicants: Be sure to enhance your profile, maximizing the opportunities that come from:

The Personal Essay

I spend a good deal of time coaching students about the style and tone that works for the personal statement. Hopefully, your essay is complete, but if you’re still writing it, note the comments in the grid below.

Personal Essay: Dos and Don’ts

Do... Don't...
Share a side of you that colleges wouldn’t otherwise know about. Write about academic subjects or activities or awards listed on your app.
Show off your sense of humor, empathy, kindness and tendency to be a good friend or roommate. Come across as arrogant, anxious or seeking pity.
Include details that customize the essay. Speak in generalities and broad statements.
Tell a story that presents yourself making the most of unique situations with people closest to you. Write about more common situations, for example, how you’ve grown from community service or at summer camp (sorry!).
Use a personal, casual style (authentic voice). Let parents or other adults make changes that involve replacing your voice with fluffy words or phrases.

Supplemental essays

A favorite of this college counselor, supplemental essays allow students to share their passions, display knowledge of a target college’s programs and activities, and explain what you’d add to a college community. The challenge is getting your message across in an original way, nailing the prompt without exceeding the word count.

Curriculum and Career-Focused Essays

When a student applies to universities in Europe, they need to devote time on their essay to display how they’re uniquely qualified for the program to which they apply. A very popular public university in the United States, the University of Texas at Austin, looks at “fit to major” as well. While students may believe that they don’t have the credentials for academically focused responses, I argue that they can use what they read about, what they study, where they’ve researched and what they follow in the creation of stellar supplements.

The University of Michigan, for example, not only wants to know what you intend to study but also expects applicants to demonstrate an understanding of its specific degree programs. (No cut-and-pasting from your Wisconsin application!)

From the University of Michigan:

Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?

Community Essays

These essays have never been more popular. A community can be an extended family, a sports team, a group with shared interests—really, anything goes! (Just don’t reuse a community from a personal statement in your supplemental essay.)

From the University of Michigan:

Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.

Recently, a student told me about a favorite summer sport that we would not associate with either her high school or the University of Michigan. But sure enough, the Wolverines had a club for students interested in that sport. Needless to say, this is now part of her essay draft.

Videos

About 12 years ago, Tufts University announced to the college community that it would accept videos from applicants. While people thought it might favor students who have money to spend on coaches and special effects, just the opposite proved to be the case. It’s likely that Tufts paved the way for other elite colleges to request videos, which have proven to be a great way to know more about the candidate.

I’ve continually heard that colleges want videos that are unscripted and casual. Brown, my alma mater, introduced video to its application in 2020, telling applicants they could share a video of no more than two minutes in lieu of an alumni interview. Brown, like the majority of colleges that offer applicants the opportunity to share video, doesn’t use prompts, though there are some exceptions. For example, Bowdoin College provides a link in the applicant portal to record a response to a randomly selected prompt. While a student can review that response, they can’t edit or re-record it. If they’re unhappy, Bowdoin will allow them to ask for an alternative prompt, and that will be used by admissions.

For applicants, a video represents another opportunity to share something about themselves that isn’t apparent in other places in their application. My students have shot informal videos in their favorite places, including bedrooms, kitchens and transit hubs. And if a college allows that option, you know they’ll view it!

Other uploads

For a while, standardized tests like the SAT and ACT included an essay section, but colleges weren’t happy with it. Since then, some elite colleges have used a paper to assess a student’s skills, which could include intellectual curiosity and written communication. While Princeton requires uploading a graded paper, Williams makes it optional. In either case, a student should select a paper that really shows off their style.

Other colleges allow you to share research abstracts on their applicant portals. So if your interest is science and you’ve conducted research with a nearby university or through a credible program, don’t hesitate to include it. Just be sure to follow the college’s guidelines, and be sure they can verify the source of your research.

Social media presence

So much emphasis is put on what not to post, but how about being proactive with the tools available? I always encourage students to follow colleges, post queries thoughtfully and, if appropriate, create a website. Some colleges allow students to include a url in their supplement. If not, a student can include a url in an essay or Additional Information Box.

Artistic presence

Are you a talented artist or musician? If so, your top-choice college may invite you to submit your work through SlideRoom. Be sure to check the website for specifications. For example, a dancer applying to Vassar should note:

If you are submitting the Common Application go to vassar.slideroom.com, click on the program and round in which you are applying, and submit materials through that program.

Some colleges will provide further instructions on their portals, which are only available once you’ve submitted the Common App (or other application).

Additional recommendations

Some colleges have a strict limit on the number of recommendations a student may submit, yet others welcome extra letters from those who know you well. Check to see the specs for each college to which you’re applying. For example, the University of Pennsylvania specifies:

Beyond the required letters of recommendation, we ask that you only submit additional letters from people who know you personally and whose perspective would add information not captured elsewhere in your application. If you choose to submit an optional additional letter of recommendation, please submit it directly through the Coalition or Common Application.

Applicants:

It’s going to be another high-volume admissions cycle! Take advantage of the opportunities provided by colleges to display your knowledge, academic strengths, intellectual curiosity and extracurricular interests.

Written by

N

Nina Berler

Nina is the founder of unCommon Apps, a college and career readiness consultancy. She has an AB with Honors from Brown University and an MBA from the Stern School of Business, NYU. Nina is a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC). Her ebooks, Supplementing the College Supplement and Mastering the College Interview, are available on Apple Books.

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