Applying the Lessons I Learned at Harvard Business School to the College Application Process

The College Application Process is Like Building a Business or Selling a Product

Once you submit your application, regional admissions officers will read your application which, for most schools, consists of some numbers (transcript, test scores), some essays, a few recommendations and your activity sheet.  From those few pieces of information, someone you likely have never met will need to decide whether or not to fight for you to have a spot in the incoming class.  So, our challenge is to leverage those few pieces of information to make a stranger:

  1. Understand who you are
  2. Fall in love with who you are
  3. Fight for your spot in a class

So, how do we do that?

Think about your favorite companies: Apple, GameStop, Starbucks.  What does each company brand stand for?

Just like your favorite companies, you need to know what you stand for and you must communicate that brand and reinforce that message through every opportunity of the admissions process. In fact, applying to and getting accepted to the right colleges for you is very much like running a business or selling a product.

You, the college-bound student, are the product.  All of the interests, passions, talents, experiences, values, personality quirks and obstacles you have overcome across the past 16 – 18 years are what make you uniquely you.  No other applicant will bring your specific combination of qualities to your chosen college.

Next, let’s talk about your target demographic.  These are the schools where you hope to get accepted. Think about this list carefully.  Other than your first four years of life, your four years of college are arguably the years where you will experience the fastest rate of growth and development.  It is important to find a set of colleges that will support that development – academically, intellectually, socially, physically and spiritually.  College is where you will likely make friendships that last a lifetime and may even find your spouse.  Think about those elements when you are building your college list.  Don’t get tied to rankings because the rankings will change. And don’t settle on the same set of schools to which your high school friends are applying because, usually, your friends will change, as well.

The final piece is the marketing piece.  Much like a product relies on packaging to attract customers, you also have to package yourself effectively to appeal to your target schools.  The college application is that packaging.  How we bring together each piece of the application to communicate who you are and what you will contribute to a college community and, eventually, to the world.

Ultimately, our goal is to convince the target market (your target schools) that they are purchasing (admitting) the highest quality product (you) by presenting it in the most compelling packaging (application).

But, here’s where students go wrong: they try to manufacture some picture or image of what they think colleges want to see.  “I must do 100 hours of community service” or “I must be a varsity athlete” or “I must save a small village in Honduras.”  The truth is that you must not do anything but be yourself.   Just as it is easy to see through a salesperson who is selling something he does not believe in, a student who is trying to be something he’s not jumps right off the page.  And, not in a good way.

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