52 Weeks to College: Week 3 — Your Story and Your Resume Are Essential Pre-Work

Most applicants assume that the best strategy for getting their college applications done is just to dive in and start writing essays. After all, the essays are the hardest, most time-consuming part, so if you get those knocked out, you'll be well ahead of the curve, right?

Not exactly. It is true that the essays are the hardest, most time-consuming part, but it isn't true that the "dive in and write" strategy is the best strategy.

The problem with this strategy is that it focuses on getting it done without considering whether it will also get you in! The only reason you care about getting your college applications done is because you care about getting into college. So whether a strategy will get you in always has to be considered. And the "dive in and write" strategy will not get you in.

The strategy that will get it done and get you in is the "produce a standout application" strategy, and that's the strategy we detail in our book and the strategy that is embedded in this 52 Weeks to College series.

Your To-Dos for this week are essential pre-work that you must do if you are going to produce a standout application. So dive into these instead of the essays. We'll get to the essays in due time and when we do, you'll find that there is a bonus to this strategy — not only is it the strategy that will make you more likely to get in, it is also the strategy that will make writing the essays easier!

Week 3 To-Dos

This Week and Every Week

Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

This Week

Write your story using this template. Consult these samples for guidance about what a good finished story looks like.

Create your resume. Use the universally recognized format for resumes, but include information tailored to college applications and admissions. Consult these samples for ideas about what your resume should include.

Research scholarships from outside organizations.

Tips & Tricks

Your story is your guide for completing all parts of your application.

What we’re calling “your story” distills what you want the admissions officer to know about you into a structured, succinct statement. It isn’t a classic biography or a resume in prose form; instead, it is a five-sentence story of who you are that will persuade an admissions officer to admit you. It highlights your best credentials and characteristics in terms of what matters to the admissions officer.

More specifically, it focuses on the three dimensions that admissions officers at top colleges will evaluate: (1) your academic achievements, (2) your extracurricular accomplishments (also known as “activities”), and (3) your personal qualities and character. This “3-D” evaluation can vary a bit in how it is implemented from college to college, but all three dimensions are always considered in a holistic review, and each relates to an essential aspect of your qualifications and your potential for contributing to the college. 

The story you come up with using the template will not actually be included word for word in your application; it is not a personal statement or an essay, or a piece that you will be submitting as part of the application. Rather, it is a tool that you will use to guide you as you complete all of the application components going forward. It will help you decide what information to include, what to leave out, how to order the items on your lists, what to write about in your essays, whom to choose as recommenders, how to present your activities, how to guide your recommenders, and how to present yourself in your interviews. Whew! Your five-sentence story is going to do some heavy lifting.

Your resume is your evidence of the "core four" — passion, talent, initiative, and impact.

We recommend that you create a resume that follows the universally recognized format for a resume, but that is tailored to the college application process.

When admissions officers are evaluating you on those three dimensions given above, they are looking for evidence of four things — passion, talent, initiative, and impact. We call these the "core four."        

Passion. What are you passionate about? People generally express their passions by devoting their thoughts, time, and energy to them. Admissions officers are looking for your passions both inside and outside the classroom. 

Talent. What do you do well? Your accomplishments generally announce your talents, but you want to go beyond just announcing your talents and describe how you have developed your talents. Admissions officers want to see that you are more than just a “gifted slacker.” They want to see that you challenge yourself, that you have a work ethic, and that you are striving to be the best you can be.

Initiative. What have you made happen? What have you started? What have you led? Where have you created your own opportunities? Where have you gone above and beyond? When admissions officers talk about students with initiative, they are talking about students who make things happen or who lead others. They are talking about students who start clubs or lead teams, think up and do projects on their own, seek out challenges, and generally use their efforts to create opportunities for themselves and others. You get no points for initiative when all you do is join, enroll, show up, or meet the requirements.

Impact. How have you been changed, grown, or learned from your experiences? How have others benefitted from what you have done? What have you added to your classroom, your school, your community, or the world? Admissions officers want to see that what you have done mattered to someone. That’s what impact means when it comes to applying to college.

How do you show all that in a single entry on a resume? Here’s an example:

Start with the information you need to include about a particular activity. Say you love science (passion), have a special gift for organizing groups (talent), and started the Project Sunshine Club at your school (initiative).

Don’t stop there! You must also demonstrate impact. So you would also report that you got the school excited about alternative energy, you figured out that the school could acquire solar panels for free by encouraging people in the community to sign up for a special program offered by the local electric company, and you organized that effort. And you would explain that as a result, solar panels are now installed at your school and providing 5% of the school’s energy needs. That’s impact. Impact is about results, so make sure you expressly mention them.

Now translate that into a resume entry:

Founder and President. Project Sunshine Club. (10th grade-present)

-Organized a new school club dedicated to raising awareness about solar energy and to bringing solar energy to the school.

-Identified an opportunity through the local electric company to get solar panels for the school for free by convincing local residents to sign up for a special alternative energy program.

-Organized and led the campaign to sign up local residents.

-Signed up 1,011 local residents which resulted in the school getting an array of solar panels for free; solar energy now provides 5% of the school's electricity.

See how it works? Now do it for yourself.

Buyer beware when it comes to scholarship search services.

There's good news and bad news when it comes to scholarship searches. The bad news is that scholarship scams abound, and every year thousands of hopeful college applicants and their families get duped by them. It is so tempting to sign up for a service that "guarantees" you'll get a scholarship, but the only guarantee is that you'll never see the money you paid to this service again. Before you pay a single dollar to a scholarship search service, use this checklist to evaluate whether you are about to become a victim of a scam rather than the recipient of legitimate assistance.

The good news is that there are scholarships out there and that it is relatively easy for you to identify them for FREE thanks to the internet. Here are our two favorite scholarship search sites:

One note about these "free" services:

They are free to you, but they are for-profit enterprises. So who pays? For the most part, these sites are supported by colleges, scholarship organizations, and financial aid related companies (such as lenders). They pay these sites so that they can have access to you! They want to sell you on themselves. So once you sign up for these services, you will likely become a target of a lot of marketing including web advertisements, e-mails, and snail mail. Our advice? Just deal with the hassle factor of all this extra stuff coming your way. It is worth it to get the information you need about scholarships for free.

In other words, the easiest way to avoid being the victim of a scam is simply to do your research.

Dive in to your pre-work this week and you'll be spending your time and energy in the best way possible, because you'll be doing things that will help you get it done and get in.


About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey College Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can read more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, August 2013), and follow them on Twitter @IveyCollege.

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our forthcoming book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.