Shaping Your College Application Narrative

This interview is part of Signet’s series of interviews with former admissions officers and admissions experts.

This series covers topics like the college admissions process, how to think about college majors, what makes a good college “fit”, the application and activity list, and the essay, among others. Our goal is to give you inside knowledge into the nuances of how these pieces of the application are used, and how you can best approach putting them together.

For this interview, our CEO and Co-Founder, Jay Bacrania, spoke with Liz Adams, a consultant at Signet and former Harvard Admissions Officer. The topic is a student’s “narrative” as it’s presented in the application—in other words, what story your application tells about you. We hope you find it helpful in shedding light on the college application process!

I often hear from admissions officers that they’re interested in a student’s story or narrative. Can you describe what that means?

Sure! First, I want to clarify that my viewpoint is very specific to where I read applications, which was Harvard. That was a highly selective place with highly competitive applicants, so narrative was very important in that context. But there are lots of different schools out there, and narrative may not carry the same weight at other colleges.

The idea of narrative or story often goes hand in hand with fit, because schools are looking for narratives that match up with their values, what they think is important in an educational context.

Narrative or story is really what the application says about who you are. An admissions officer reads a bunch of information about you, and they’re trying to figure out who this person is that they’ve never met before. They’re trying to put together bits and pieces into a fully formed human, and they do that by pulling those bits and pieces together into a story. Every small bit has weight, and admissions officers tie those pieces together so it all makes sense.

For adults, an analogy might be to think about a career change. Just because you haven’t worked in a particular field doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing so. When applying for a position in a new field, you would try to showcase how your previous experience can translate into this other career. For example, if you were previously a server at a restaurant but wanted to work in marketing, you might talk about how you handled the restaurant’s social media account, or designed a poster for the restaurant, or other opportunities you created to express this particular interest.

The transition from high school to college is a bit like that. If you want to be pre-med, you probably haven’t done a ton of lab research yet. But you may have volunteered at a hospital, or taken high-level math and science classes. That’s part of the narrative that shows your interest in medicine.

How does that narrative get formed from the various parts of the application?

To me, the student always comes to life the most in teacher recommendations. That’s the best way to get a sense of the student as a three-dimensional person. Excellent recommendations often include anecdotes or specific examples, and there’s a certain level of reflection that a student can’t really do about themselves. Teachers are often writing about a student’s relationship with their peers as well, so admissions officers get even more context about them.

Then the personal statement gives additional information, although it’s slightly less important. A student may not have a fully developed sense of self yet, or have chosen an unusual topic, so the essay is usually a more self-conscious portrait of the applicant.

On top of that is the activities list, grades, test scores, and curriculum, which give an admissions officer an idea of how the student is spending their time. They can read into those choices based on the information they’ve gotten from the qualitative pieces like the recommendations and the essay.

The cherry on top, which is not a part of every process, is the interview. That’s the final step that brings everything together.

Do you have any compelling stories that would illustrate how a student’s narrative was conveyed in their application?

One student comes to mind. I helped her apply to college, and during our first meeting I asked “Who are you?” She stared blankly at me and said “I don’t really know.” As we got to know each other, I learned about her passion for education, her love for her siblings, how she stayed after school to tutor her classmates, and her involvement in a peer relationship committee at school.

This showed she cared about other people, valued education, and cared about her own learning. As we started working together, we drew those threads into a narrative. By the end of our time, when I asked “Who are you?” she answered “I want to be a guidance counselor for students who have less access to services and resources.” That was a process that happened outside the application, but through the application as well.

How did you get that narrative to appear in the application?

Students should think about what each part of their application is saying, and look at how the pieces of their lives can map onto various components of the application. The student I mentioned before knew that her teachers were going to speak to her academic performance in school and her leadership abilities. But she also had a particular home life that was important to who she was, and had a wonderful resilience in the face of a number of challenges. That aspect of her wouldn’t come across in teacher recommendations or the activity list, so it was a natural fit for the essay topic.

That meant we had to make sure that the activity list reflected not only what she did, but the level of commitment and organization she put into her extracurriculars. This student, for example, had been doing informal math tutoring, but she didn’t realize she had actually started a tutoring organization! That’s what I helped her identify, and that’s what we put on her activity list.

What about students who really don’t see a narrative for their application?

The application process asks students to think about what’s important to them, and that may not be something they’ve done before. One thing all students can do is try to write about who they are. That will start them thinking and reflecting on other questions about the future, about purpose, what matters to them, and where their passions lie.

Students can also look back at the past, asking “What have I done?” and “Why did I choose to do that?” This is what admissions officers are trying to uncover in your application, so if you do that for yourself, you’re really helping give them a clearer picture of who you are.

If you’re feeling a little lost in your narrative, it’s okay to feel that way. High schoolers are still really young, and many have never gone through this kind of reflection before. Students should look for a school that meets them where they are and help them grow and develop from there. The degree to which narrative matters is determined not just by the school, but by the student as well.

How do students undertake the process of understanding who they are?

First, try lots of things. Get to know what you like and don’t like.

Next, reflect on those experiences. What do you not like about math? Why do you prefer literature? Thoughtful examination will help you understand the nuances of your preferences and skill set.

Also, try to separate out what you are doing because you have to versus what you are choosing to do. The divisions between those aren’t always as clear as students think; you may be complaining about an activity that when you look at it, you really, really love.

A mentor figure who doesn’t have underlying assumptions about you (the way a parent, teacher, or friend might) can be really helpful. They can engage with you on more of a peer level, while still giving advice. Mentors can be especially valuable for students who are recognizing that their passions or interests are shifting from what they’ve “always done.”

What are some questions that might prompt this kind of reflection?

What do you do when you’re bored?

What do you always procrastinate doing?

What do you never procrastinate doing?

What do you look forward to?

What do you dread?

What websites, magazines, TV shows, and books are you drawn to?

What’s your favorite class? Why?

What’s your least favorite class? Why?

Who’s your favorite teacher? Why?

Any other questions students can ask with respect to the narrative of their application?

What are three things I want an admissions office to know about me?

What am I most proud of that I’ve done?

What’s a talent I have that would surprise my friends?

These questions will help students practice communicating who they are.

You’re describing an authenticity in the application process that can be scary, because you don’t know if that’s what the college will want. But you’re saying that’s ultimately what ends up working best, when there’s a match between student and school?

It’s certainly scary to be authentically yourself, especially to strangers. But if you’re authentically you, and a college accepts you, that is going to be the perfect match. The thing that makes it less scary is for you to do your homework.

It’s a two-way street. Do your research and get a sense of what schools are looking for. The narratives that will appeal to an admissions officer tie back to what the school values, and what other students there are like. If those things resonate, chances are that’s a good place for you.

If you’re being authentic, but you aren’t applying to schools where you’re a good fit, it’s a lot more uncomfortable. If you feel discomfort in the application process, that might be a signal that a particular school is not the right place for you. Take some time and reflect on that. Your top school at the beginning of the admissions process might be very different from your top school by the end.

So students should think about what they need from a college, and choose based on that, instead of choosing the college and trying to do whatever they need to get accepted.

Students shouldn’t think of it as “I’m not good enough to go to X school,” but instead, perhaps “X school isn’t good enough for me, or isn’t the right fit.”

It’s really clear when students have been forced to do things they don’t really care about, and that kind of student is not going to succeed in a competitive college environment, because it’s not self-sustaining.

On the other hand, the most compelling applications I’ve ever read were from people who were 100% themselves, and didn’t really care what admissions officers thought. When a student’s authentic narrative lines up with what the school values, magic happens!

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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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