52 Weeks to College: Week 25

Your First Steps to Producing a Standout College Application
June 21, 2021

If you’re like most applicants, you’re under the impression that the best strategy for getting your 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 top of mind. And the "dive in and write" strategy will not get you in.

The strategy that will get it done and get you in is our strategy for producing a standout application. Step 1: Before you dive in and write, you need to figure out what you want to say in your essays. Your To-Dos for this week are essential pre-work that will help you figure that out.

If you take the time to do this pre-work, you’ll be on the path to getting in AND you’ll discover that when it comes time to write the essays, it is actually easier!



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

  • Research outside scholarships. (See Week 24.)


  • 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.



What we’re calling “your story” distills what you want the admissions officer to know about you into a few brief sentences. It isn’t a classic biography or a resume in prose form; instead, it is a structured, succinct statement of who you are that will persuade an admissions officer to admit you.

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 highlights your best and most important characteristics in terms of what matters to the admissions officer.

More specifically, it focuses on the three dimensions that admissions officers at all 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 the “holistic” review that selective US colleges use, and each relates to an essential aspect of your qualifications and your potential for contributing to the college.

Take your time as you write your story. It shouldn’t be hard, because it is a summary statement of what makes you, you.

But it does take some reflection and thought about what your essential characteristics and experiences are on these three dimensions. It’s a great idea to preview your story with your parents (or other close adults) and your closest friends to see if they agree that you have included the best parts of you in your story.


We recommend that you create a resume that follows the format for a U.S. resume and that is also tailored to the college application process.

When admissions officers are evaluating you on those three dimensions 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? Where have you created your own opportunities? What have you led? 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 minimum requirements.

  • Impact. How have you changed, grown, or learned from your experiences? How have others benefitted from what you’ve done? What have you added to your classroom, your school, your community, or the world? Admissions officers want to see that what you’ve done mattered to someone. That’s what impact means in the context of 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 that works? Now do it for yourself. Your activities might look very different, especially during Covid and lockdown. That’s fine!

Dive into 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.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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