How to Differentiate Yourself from Other Top Applicants

This is a question that we hear a lot at Signet.

Unfortunately, there’s no one simple answer for this. Each candidate is different, and each application has its own specific narrative. Over the years, though, we’ve begun to see some patterns emerge from the narratives of students we know who have been accepted to competitive, top-flight schools, and we’d like to share some of those patterns with you here.

An important caveat: nearly every student we’ve worked with who has gained admission to a top school has had a very solid, if not exceptional, academic record. Additionally, no single student ever presents a simple version of these narrative types below. If that were the case, college admissions would be straightforward and predictable. Rather, each high-achieving student we’ve worked with has a complex background and history that has organically led them to one of the narrative patterns below.

Here are some of the more common, successful student types that we’ve seen at Signet over the years. Remember, all of them have strong academic and extracurricular records overall.

  • The Academic – The Academic is a student who has distinguished him or herself through grades and scores. This isn’t just the straight-A valedictorian, but the student who also aces 10+ AP exams, takes higher level college classes, and wins awards on a state or national level in academic competitions.
  • The Leader – The Leader is a student who has shown through and through that he or she has the capacity to motivate, organize, and manage his or her peers in several endeavors. Typically, this student has 2–3 significant leadership roles and has steered his or her organization(s) to have a strong impact in the broader community.
  • The Artist – The Artist has excelled in his or her craft, be it music, writing, painting, or some other form of art. The artist has worked hard to gain an extremely high level of proficiency in his or her artform and has been able to distinguish him or herself through public shows, competitions, and media recognition.
  • The Machine – The Machine is a student who seems to have boundless energy and drive for his or her pursuits. We’ve seen Machines who have excelled in varied creative personal projects, but we’ve also seen those who have tirelessly worked two jobs, in addition to managing school and extracurricular obligations, to support their families. All Machines don’t always do the same things, but they do everything with the utmost drive.
  • The Public Servant – The Public Servant is someone who dedicates him or herself to serving those around him or her, whether it be through volunteer work or government. The Public Servants that we’ve met have served others through far-reaching (sometimes global) volunteer work, government or NGO work, or even less noticeable but no less important work in their own local communities.

If you just take a quick read of these profiles, you’ll realize that there is no single thing we can tell you to do in order to make yourself a better choice for a top college. What might be a great idea for an Artist might be a terrible idea for a Leader.

However, there are a few core traits shared by all of the above narratives, and these are definitely traits that should be mimicked.

Our most competitive applicants over the last several years have all had at least a few of these characteristics:

  • They are driven to pursue excellence in whatever they’re working on, from painting to piloting.
  • They take initiative to do interesting things in their schools and communities.
  • They are entrepreneurial and look for opportunities in unlikely places.
  • They are involved beyond their immediate communities. Most of our highest performing students have been involved in organizations or competitions on a regional or national level.
  • They follow their own intuitions and pursue the opportunities that resonate with them, not opportunities that other people may think are “a good for getting into college.”
  • They take advantage of their resources. All of our successful students have made the most of the opportunities available to them at their schools or in their communities.
  • They are often focused on something beyond themselves. Whether it’s entertaining others with their art or contributing to a humanitarian cause, most of our exceptional students are dedicated to something greater than themselves.

So, if you’re hoping to one day attend a top-flight institution, don’t think too much about what you need to get in. Instead, think about your narrative—who are you? Are you a Leader? A Public Servant? Another undefined narrative? How will you pursue your activities? With initiative and drive? Will you be focused beyond yourself? Thinking in this way will lead you much farther than simply thinking about what to add to your resume. Take your answers and put them into action: embrace your narrative and push your dedication, involvement, and diligence as far as it will take you. If you are true to your own interests and personality, you’ll set yourself far above the competition.

Try expert admissions assistance from a qualified Signet Education consultant.

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

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