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Articles / Applying to College / Madison Avenue and College Admissions

Madison Avenue and College Admissions

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 30, 2014

Have you ever watched Mad Men? It’s a highly regarded TV series running on AMC cable. It’s about a Madison Avenue advertising agency during the Fifties and Sixties. I’ve watched it from the beginning because I used to be involved in corporate marketing and find that watching what the earlier days of marketing and advertising used to be like is quite interesting.

There’s definitely a link between the marketing and advertising of automobiles and laundry detergent and college admissions. After all, the applicant is the “product” and the colleges are the “consumers.” Those of you who have just finished your college applications may have felt as though you were campaigning for a political office. Trying to receive a college acceptance isn’t all that much different from being elected to a political office. If you ever felt as though you were trying to “sell” yourself to your colleges, then you have experienced the thrust of marketing and advertising that permeates American society so deeply.

If you have any doubts about the depth and saturation of marketing and advertising in our culture, just spend a few hours some evening surfing your TV channels. If you have a fairly decent array of cable channels, you’ll probably find that it’s hard to click from channel to channel and not land on a commercial segment. Back when I was in high school, half-hour-long TV shows had one commercial break about midway through the program. That break consisted of one 30- or 60-second advertisement from the show’s sponsor. Today, an hour-long TV show may have up to 20 minutes of commercials and some of the breaks can be five minutes long! Of course, the advantages of such long breaks include bathroom and snack runs, unless you have recorded the program previously and can fast-forward through all those ads quickly. That’s my preferred method. But I digress.

Getting back to the link between applying to college and the fun-derful world of marketing and advertising, though, keep in mind the old advertising adage that “Image is everything.” In the world of college admissions, there obviously has to be substance behind your application. But it doesn’t hurt to work on your image a bit.


This is where you Madison Avenue (Mad Men) skills come in–your student profile and resume.  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 a number of means. The end result is that the admissions staff at the colleges where you are applying will get an overall picture of you from smaller pieces. It’s the mosaic principle. Let’s get specific.

One of your mosaic pieces is your application information. Don’t just quickly dash off information without first checking to see how it can help your cause. Give it 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. For this one, 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 (or whatever) hobby. Show them that you are a vital and energetic person.

Another piece comes from your essay (personal statement), if one is required. 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 your choices are 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. These people want to know what goes on inside. Finally, don’t overlook your recommendations. When you ask a teacher or your counselor to write a recommendation for you, ask them if they might be able to include some personal anecdotes about your personal characteristics. This would include anything about your character or individual traits that would enhance the aspects you put forth in your application and essay.

If you do these things, readers of your application will be able to derive a deeper and more personal picture of who you are. You’ll stand out from the pile of other applicants and, assuming your academic credentials are acceptable, give you an edge in the admissions process.

So what about your resume? Getting into a good college is a lot like trying to get a good job. In both cases, you need a way to sell yourself. That’s where your resume comes in.

A high school resume works like a professional resume. If you are a junior, planning on applying to colleges that do not accept everyone who applies (that’s most colleges), you’re going to be competing for a spot in the freshman class. You need a tool to market yourself, something to make you stand out from the others. A resume is the answer.

To put together a high school resume, you need to do some serious reflection. Get a piece of paper and a pencil. Ask someone in your family, who knows what you have accomplished over the years, to sit with you for an hour or so. The purpose of this exercise is to chronicle the highlights of your academic and extracurricular career.

Start by listing the biggest academic honors you’ve garnered, starting with ninth grade. Most colleges are interested in only your four years of high school. Please note, though, that if you have done something exceptional in middle or elementary school, make note of it. Academic honors include honor-roll recognition, essay-writing awards, science competitions, and the like. Take time to discuss your history. Make note of everything that comes up.

Now turn to your extracurriculars. This category includes clubs you’ve belonged to, class offices you’ve held, sports, band, yearbook, and all the other nonacademic activities you’ve done. Don’t forget non-school-related items such as volunteering at a nursing home and jobs you’ve worked. Include special interests like photography, hiking, writing, and so forth. Detail your uniqueness. You’re trying to paint a portrait of yourself; create an action inventory.

When you’re finished listing everything, put the items into chronological order by category. The title of this document should be something like, “Robert P. Osborne: Personal Highlights,” or “Robert P. Osborne: Achievement Summary,” or something similar. Your two main categories should be “Academic” and “Other,” or “Extra-Curricular.” Use three time periods: Elementary (if needed), Middle School (if needed), and Junior-Senior High School.

When you’re done, you’ll have a one-sheet profile of your best work and activities. You can include a copy of the resume with all of your applications to offset the application’s limited space. Don’t be afraid to market yourself. If you don’t, who will?

Linking your college application approach to a Madison Avenue marketing approach, then, try to imagine that you have a cold and don’t feel well (I hope that’s not true now!). So, you head to the CVS pharmacy looking for something to make you feel better. When you walk in, you scan the signs hanging from the ceiling and see one that says, Cold Remedies. Ah, just what you need! So you walk over to that aisle and suddenly you are confronted with what seems like a million different products, all of which, each in their own way, are clamoring for you to buy them. What to do?!

You begin to read the labels and blurbs on a few and become even more confused. You’re about to leave in frustration, when suddenly you see an interesting looking package that says, “A different kind product to fix your cold!” You pick up that package, read its blurb, and–voila!–you’ve found your medicine! So, you take it up front, pay for it, and head home, satisfied that soon you’ll be feeling better.

Okay, believe it or not, my silly little story has a point. The analogy to college admissions is that you and your head cold are the admissions committee. All the cold remedies trying to get you to buy them are the applicants to your school. The “applicant” (product) you “admitted” (purchased) is the one whose “application” (product marketing pitch) that most appealed to you, even though in reality there may have been better product on those shelves.

Over the decades, one of my fundamental approaches to helping applicants get into elite colleges has been what I call “student profile marketing.” The thrust of that is: “You are unique, so tell the admissions committee why they should pick you instead of all the rest.” This goes back to that cold-medicine packaging I mentioned. Your “package” has to be special and outstanding, in order to jump “off the shelf” from among all those others clamoring for attention. I’m sure you get the concept by now, at least I hope so.

Overall, then, try to keep the path to your first-choice college on the fast track to success. Be a Mad Man or Mad Woman. Steer your application right down the center of Madison Avenue!


Don’t forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

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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