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How Defining Your Personal Brand Makes College Admissions Essays More Powerful (and easier to write!)

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How Defining Your Personal Brand Makes College Admissions Essays More Powerful (and easier to write!)
Brad Schiller
How Defining Your Personal Brand Makes College Admissions Essays More Powerful (and easier to write!)

You’re applying to selective colleges. It’s hard. It’s scary. It’s overwhelming. 

But here’s an effective way we’ve found to get around all that fear — look at things from the college admissions officer’s perspective. 

Colleges want to fill their incoming classes with extraordinary, unique, talented individuals. That means, they aren’t looking to learn everything about you. Instead, they want to know what sets you apart from the other applicants — your ability to go above and beyond or to grow from your experiences. We’ll refer to that standout quality as your “personal brand.”

To show your personal brand, no need to get fancy. Simply write about something you did (or how you did something) that other students couldn’t do

According to the head of admissions at UPenn, “We expect [applicants] to have high test scores and grades. That’s a given. So another way for us to think about merit for those applicants is, what did they do with that opportunity they were given? How far did they travel in their high school journey?” 

This article can show you how to powerfully answer those questions. It’s much more attainable than most students initially think. 

Your personal brand starts with one of the 5 Traits that colleges look for in applicants

In the admissions process, we’ve found that the best place to start thinking about your personal brand is with the 5 Traits:

  • Drive, 
  • Intellectual Curiosity,
  • Contribution, 
  • Initiative, and 
  • Diversity of Experiences.

Colleges like students with these traits because they make it seem likely that the student will succeed in their college and career goals — which is ultimately the point your essays are trying to make.

Which one or two of these traits best describes you? If you’re not sure, you can create a Prompt account where you’ll find essay tips and a free brainstorming module intended to help you figure it out.

Overcome college admissions’ skepticism by filling in details that demonstrate one ore more of the 5 traits

One of the first questions we ask students working on their college application is “What do you want colleges to know about you?”

Maybe drive is your strongest trait and you founded a club at school. 

The problem is that lots of students start high school clubs. Your task is to fill in the details that show what a big deal your founding of this club really was. You probably know it took a huge drive and determination to overcome obstacles and make this happen, but an admissions reader will likely be wondering: 

  • How hard is it, really, to start a new club? Does the club actually have any members? 
  • What value are other students getting from being part of the club?
  • Did you start this club for any reason other than how you thought it would look on your applications?

In order to challenge their skepticism, focus on what you did that showed drive and what you accomplished as a result. For example:

  • Did you launch a successful social media campaign after initially struggling to gain members? 
  • Did you set up effective partnerships with other clubs at your school that allowed the members of your club and the other organization to learn from one another? 
  • Did you overcome a small budget by running a successful fundraiser? What were you able to do with the extra funds?

By filling in these details, you’re building your personal brand that shows you are not just driven, but that you demonstrate your drive in a way that other students would or could not have.

Notice that the experience you’re writing about doesn’t have to be exceptionally unique. Rather, painting a full picture of what traits you exemplified will do the work of showing your potential for college and beyond. 

Show what you did in high school that other applicants couldn’t have done (or couldn’t have done as well).

Another great question we use with students as they approach their college essays is: What did you do in high school that other applicants could not have done or could not have done as well?

Thinking this way helps students distinguish themselves from other applicants. It also tends to show students that what they think they want colleges to know about them might not actually be the most crucial information to share.

We’ve noticed that many students will initially say that they worked hard, got good grades, or did lots of extracurricular activities. What’s the problem with this kind of stuff? To admission readers at selective colleges, it’s really normal, ordinary, and boring. (All their applicants pretty much could say the same.)

Lots of high school students have taken on a lot of extracurriculars — but few have, for example, run a successful fundraiser that kept their club afloat. 

Give college admissions officers what they want by thinking deeply about what you’ve done that sets you apart. In our experience, you will find those experiences, and putting them in your essays will make an enormous difference in your chance of admission

Fill your application essays with experiences that showcase your personal brand

Once you’ve defined your personal brand, we recommend brainstorming 3-6 experiences that showcase it. (Again, you can use our module to do this brainstorming. Or just with a sheet of paper.)

With these experiences in mind, the hard part of your applications is done. 

The great part of this method is that, by starting with a cohesive narrative, you’ll be able to reinforce your personal brand throughout your application. It makes it relatively easy to convince your admissions officer that you have that extraordinary quality they’re looking for.

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The above articles and a step-by-step guide to the college essay writing process can be found in our Help Center.

Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller graduated from MIT with a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science with a concentration in Operations Research. He has worked in business consulting with McKinsey, founded two businesses, and written a book. He started Prompt with two fellow MIT people, Jordan and John, to make people better writers. Their premise was simple: give everyone access to on-demand feedback on their writing from subject-knowledgeable Writing Coaches. Years later, Prompt is the largest provider of feedback on admissions essays in the world. Come and join us on our journey by emailing