Great college applications are sticky

A great college application is one that makes you stand out from all the other applicants.  The admissions officer remembers it when it's time to discuss who to admit.  In fact, a great college application is sticky.

I just finished reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The authors, professors of business at Stanford and Duke, define a "sticky" idea as one that people understand and remember, one that changes the way people think or act.  That story about the guy who goes to Vegas and wakes up in a tub full of ice to find that someone has harvested one his kidneys?  It's fake and it's ridiculous.  But it's sticky–people heard it, remembered it and shared it with all of their friends.

They share six principles you can use to make your idea sticky–whether you're doing a sales presentation, writing an article or hunting for a job.  And it struck me how aligned they are with the tips we give our Collegewise students when they're filling out their college applications. 

1.  Simple

A idea is more likely to stick when you make it simple.  You do that by weeding out everything that's unimportant and focusing on the core.  Take the activities section of a college application.  An admissions officer can't remember ten activities that you've participated in.  So don't list JV golf if you only played it for one year back in 9th grade.  If it wasn't important to you, why would it be important to an admissions officer? Use the limited space you have to focus on the few activities that really meant something to you and defined your high school experience.

2.  Unexpected

If you want someone to care about your idea, you have to pique their curiosity.  When someone wants to know something and doesn't, it's like an itch that needs to be scratched.  Starting your college essay, "I have been in the marching band for the last four years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment" is not going to pique any admissions officer's curiosity.  You might as well have just said, "I'm going to tell you a story you've already read over and over again."  But if that same kid started his essay,

"The first time I picked up a saxophone, I actually injured myself.  Really, my mother had to take me to the doctor." 

Now, you've piqued my curiosity.  

3.  Concrete

A sticky idea isn't abstract–it's tangible, something that someone can easily understand and see for themselves. A lot of activities, honors or awards aren't recognizable to an admissions officer.  Listing the "Triton Award" isn't concrete.  Nobody knows what that is.  Tell them that it's awarded to only one student in the junior class each year and that the faculty selects the winner.  Now your reader gets it.

4.  Credible

No idea is going to stick unless someone believes you.  So don't tell a college that you're very interested in science; tell them a story about what it's like to spend two hours looking through a microscope.   Don't tell them you learned how to be a leader in student government.  Share a story about what that one meeting was like when nobody would listen to you.  And don't tell a college they're high on your list because of the "great reputation" and "small faculty-to-student ratio."  Anybody can rely on generalities or recite statistics from the website.  You have to make them believe you.

5.  Emotion

A sticky idea makes someone feel something.  So don't write your essays in a stiff, academic tone.  Come right out and say, "My parents really stuck it to me by not giving me a science gene."  Or "I love it when we're at our busiest, when I'm behind the grill and everyone is running around in hamburger pandemonium."  Or, "I'm not sure my dad understands how much it meant to me that he left work early that day to come watch me play."   When I read those sentences, I feel something.  Put your emotions into your stories, and you'll make your reader feel something, too.

6.  Story

We tell our Collegewise students that details in your college essays help you take ownership of your stories.  But more importantly, they make your reader feel like he or she was there with you.  They understand a little more about you because they feel like they've been a part of something important to you.  The stickiest ideas aren't just facts–they tell stories that people remember.  Just like great teachers tell stories to help explain the material. you need to tell stories to explain you.

You're not like every other applicant–so use your application as a tool to help them understand what makes you different.  Be yourself.  Tell stories.  Share what you're proud of and admit what you aren't good at.  Be confident and self-aware.  That's how you create an application that sticks.