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Articles / Applying to College / Modesty vs. Bragging on College Applications

Modesty vs. Bragging on College Applications

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 12, 2019
Modesty vs. Bragging on College Applications

Seniors who have already submitted their Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) applications probably won't benefit from the following information unless they receive disappointing news in mid-December and have to submit Regular Decision applications after the first of the year.

So, EAers and EDers, it may pay to keep what follows in mind as a kind of Plan B. For all of you who will be applying only Regular Decision, these ideas may help you create or refine your application strategy. My experience in working with college applicants has shown me that many lack the confidence to bring out the best about themselves. They worry about coming on too strong. The goal is to keep your tone somewhere between overly modest and boasting.

I'm a believer in putting your best foot forward, whether it's for applying to college, interviewing for a job or trying to convince a bank that you deserve that new car loan. However, there is a fine line between being confident and bragging. That's what I want to take a look at today -- how to be assertive without stepping over the line into being a braggart.

Toe the Line

High school students often have difficulty putting their best foot forward. Sometimes this is a matter of genuine, natural modesty. Sometimes it's a matter of low self-esteem. But when it comes to applying to college, holding back can be a real negative.

There once was a Canon camera TV commercial with a top tennis player who proclaimed confidently, "Image is everything!" In the world of college admissions, of course, you have to have substance behind your application, but it doesn't hurt to work on your image a bit.

This is where your so-called student profile comes in. What is a student profile? Well, there is no such thing as a "student profile form." You have to create an image of yourself through various means, such as essays, short responses, your activities list, and maybe even interviews. The result is that the admission staff at the colleges where you are applying should get a complete picture of you from these smaller pieces. It's the mosaic principle.

I recall advising my son on his college application process. I gave him instructions for creating his activities list, also known as a resume or "brag sheet." He gave me a categorized summary of what he felt were all the activities he had pursued since ninth grade and was currently pursuing. After spending some time reviewing what he had written (which didn't take all that long), I was surprised to see that he had left out more than just a few of his past accomplishments, some of which were significant, not only in my view but also, no doubt, in the eyes of most college application readers.

When we discussed what he had given me, I asked him about why he had left off some of these endeavors. I had taken the time to write down a list of the missing items. His answer was typical of more than a few high schools seniors I have advised over the years. He said, "I forgot about some of them and I thought the others might make me look like I was bragging." I was touched by his humility, but at the same time I was frustrated that he was unwilling to take advantage of every "marketing" point that he had going for himself. So I began working with him on a process I call "achievement dentistry."

"What the heck is achievement dentistry?" you ask. I coined this term after repeated encounters with students like my son who were reluctant to mention (a.k.a. "market") in their college applications the full scope of their activities and accomplishments over the course of their school careers. Ultimately, I came to feel that getting these young people to be forthcoming about all that they had done was like pulling teeth. Ergo, my coined term.

Look Beyond Modesty

Overcoming your modesty doesn't just apply to listing your activities and achievements. Be alert for those little so-called "short-response" questions on applications. Don't just quickly dash off answers without first checking to see how you can help your cause. Give them some thought. Sometimes an application will ask for seemingly minor information such as, "Write a brief description of how you spent your time last summer." This is really a mini-essay. Obviously, don't tell them how bored you were or how late you slept in. Tell them about your summer job and how you pursued your photography hobby. Show them that you are a vital and energetic person. Energy and passion are two aspects colleges love to see in their applicants.

Another piece of your marketing campaign comes from your essay(s), sometimes called personal statements. This is your big chance to shine. Don't be mundane or cute. Imagine how many essays these folks have to read. Make yours stand out. Whatever you choose for an essay topic, avoid the typical topics: Sports, pets, vacations, and so forth. Dig deep down and come up with a significant statement that applies to you in a special way. Colleges want to know what goes on inside you. I've written dozens of articles for College Confidential about essay development.

Take Rec Letters Into Account

Finally, don't overlook your recommendations. When you ask a teacher or your counselor to write on your behalf, make sure they know enough about you to sound convincing. You might suggest some personal information about yourself that will help them better present you to the admissions committees. Keep an eye on your image. It may not be "everything," as some old tennis players have claimed, but it sure can't hurt to optimize it.

Those are a few of my perspectives on avoiding both modesty and bragging in your applications. For a broader view of this issue, I did some research and found some points by Fastweb's Elizabeth Hoyt that might add to your understanding of how to bring out your best without becoming offensively over-positive about yourself. Here are some excerpts from her article about how to put together your (ironically named) "brag" sheet:

Starting from ninth grade, include all of your experiences. Ideally, you would have been keeping track of all your time in any extracurricular activity, sport, club, travel time, volunteer service, as well as any awards, leadership positions, etc.

However, if you have not been keeping track, there's no time like the present to create your list.

Also, keep in mind that this is called a brag sheet for a reason. It can seem uncomfortable listing all you've accomplished, but they are your accomplishments! While you should be honest (some schools do verify the truth to these), you should not be overly humble – it's time to highlight your accomplishments! … [as Dave says above!]

Now, if you're coming up short of inspiration on what kind of things to mention about yourself that will be positive but not overbearing, try answering some of Elizabeth's "kickstarters" and work that into your applications, where appropriate.

- What would you consider to be your most outstanding accomplishment thus far, academic and personal?

- Talk about an event or happening in your life that had a significant impact on you. How did it affect your life, both personally and academically?

- Describe yourself using only five positive adjectives.

- What do you consider your three greatest academic strengths and weaknesses? Please briefly explain your answers.

- What do you consider your three greatest personal strengths and weaknesses? Please briefly explain your answers.

- Are there any factors or circumstances in your life related to your grades or admission test scores that you would like colleges to be aware of?

- Are you excited to explore a particular academic area in college? If yes, which area of study and why?

- Are you interested in a particular profession? Why? ...

All the above should get you revved up and on your way to presenting yourself in the best possible light in your applications without diminishing your profile by being overly modest. The important point to keep in mind is this:

You'll probably get only one shot at applying to your undergraduate colleges. If you don't sell yourself convincingly, no one else will!

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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