College applicants could learn a lot from successful (and unsuccessful) job applicants.
A friend of mine is applying for a job she really wants. Today, she asked me to read over her cover letter and give her some feedback. This woman is wonderful. She's smart, talented, likable, totally committed to her work, and I think the company (or any company) would be crazy not to hire her.
But I had to be honest and tell her that her letter had an "Insert name of company here" feeling that wouldn't help her stand out.
In today's economy, job applicants feel pressured to play the numbers, to apply to as many employers as possible in the hopes that one will invite them for an interview. And they have to do so under the pressure of deadlines and the reality that if nobody says "Yes," they're unemployed.
So a lot of applicants resort to a general cover letter, one that describes past employment experiences and cites the applicants' strengths, like, "I am very dependable and deadline-oriented," or "I show great initiative and am comfortable taking a leadership role," or "I believe my skills and talents are a good match with this job." Then they recycle the letter at as many companies as possible changing only the name of the employer (though I admit that I've received cover letters from people who even forgot to do that–and I didn't hire them).
That's the approach my friend took.
A cover letter like that isn't going to make you stand out from all the other qualified applicants. Job seekers need to show employers that they have thoughtfully considered each potential position, that they've identified why they believe they're a good match, and most importantly, they need to do so in a way that doesn't sound like anyone else. It's not enough to tell them that you're "Dependable, honest and trustworthy." You've got to help them see those traits with relevant, specific, compelling examples. It's not easy, but it's what you have to do.
Students often approach the college application process the same way, applying to as many colleges as possible, using and re-using your application essays, and (hopefully) substituting the right name of each college.
It doesn't work in job applications. And it doesn't work in college applications, either.
The good news for students is that college admissions doesn't have to be a numbers game. There are over 2,000 colleges in the country. Only about 100 of them actually reject more than a small percentage of their applicants. And over two dozen except literally every student who applies.
So don't try to play the college admissions numbers. Don't apply to 5 Ivy League schools, Stanford, Duke, Georgetown and Northwestern and then hope for the best. Those schools all reject the vast majority of their applicants. Applying to as many of them as possible with recycled applications doesn't improve your chances; in fact, since your applications will have an "insert name of college here" feeling, you've actually hurt your chances taking that approach. You've turned college admissions into a numbers game that you can't win.
Instead, don't be so concerned with whether or not a college is famous. Find the colleges that are right for you. Spend your application space showing them how you arrived at your decision to apply and why you would be excited to be a freshman there. Be thoughtful and deliberate.
And whatever you do, don't be an "insert name of college here" applicant.