February 1, 2011 How To Stand Out as a College Applicant…and How NOT to Stand Out!
You are applying to a prestigious college or a special program and you are feeling pressure to do something to stand out. This is a common sentiment among college applicants that has been encouraged by parents and college counselors across the country.
As schools become more competitive, the pressure to be unique is profoundly felt and has been the cause of not a few examples of extreme behavior. This idea that a candidate has to do something extreme to stand out has even been captured in a number of movies—in Election, Reese Witherspoon plays a student who meanly manipulates to get a nomination for class president as part of her obsession to get into college. In Spanglish, a first generation applicant to Princeton writes a much-too-long but endearing emigration-from-Mexico story for her application essay. And in Orange County, where an “over-achieving “ student visits Stanford to convince them to change their minds about rejecting him, the student and his irresponsible older brother try all kinds of outrageous acts to correct a mistaken transcript switch!
As entertaining as these depictions of desperation are, you really don’t have to look to fiction these days to find college applicants who are going a little too far to impress colleges. Take the case of the mysterious piano-on-the-sandbar in Bisbayne Bay, Miami. For days, Miamians and the national press wondered how a baby grand piano got onto a sandbar out in the middle of the Floridian bay. Finally, according to the L.A. Times, Nicholas Harrington stepped forward to admit he put it there (with the help of his parents) in furtherance of an art project that he hoped would impress the admissions committee of a prestigious art school.
State wildlife officials served the Harringtons with orders to remove the stranded piano within 24 hours. Evidently, leaving the piano in the bay is a felony. Nicolas and his parents, but for a lenient prosecutor, could have faced jailed time.
Unfortunately, his art project did not get completed. And Nicolas is left with only a story about his intentions and his close brush with the law. Admittedly, this story might make for a different and engaging college essay. But I don’t know how impressed the admissions folk are going to be. Remember, as much as colleges may want creative and out-of-the-box thinkers, illegal activity is never high on their list of positive attributes. Thorough research, follow through, integrity and ethical behavior are highly valued. As Janet Rapeleye, Princeton’s admissions director and others pointed out in a panel discussion about what colleges are looking for conducted by Wall Street Journal’s WSJ On Campus and Unigo , schools like to look to their honor codes as a starting place for students to govern their behavior, even prospective students. Honor codes are well established rules that allow students to self-govern cheating, plagiarism and all matters of honesty and integrity on campus and in class. Any illegal activity would likely be in violation of a college honor code. A school would also likely frown upon Harrington’s delay in coming forward to take responsibility. Many colleges make their honor codes available online. Princeton University’s is here and Stanford University’s honor code here.
So if you dream up a mind-blowing idea that you are sure will set you apart from your peers, make sure it’s legal; researched thoroughly; and does not pose a danger (or threat of danger) to others.
Standing out is a good thing as long as your method spotlights you in a positive way and reflects on your integrity, maturity and good judgment. Think honor.
And as a final note, colleges are not just looking for an event or one time publicity stunt to define you. They are interested in your track record as an outstanding person and student. So hone whatever it is you do well and be prepared to show your journey and not just one end result of it!
Be creative…but safe and not sorry!
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