Podcast: Sharon Genicoff: Personal Branding in College Admissions

In this episode, I sit down with high school college counselor Sharon Genicoff to explore the art of crafting an authentic personal brand for your college applications. Our conversation empowers students to present their unique qualities in a meaningful way, ensuring their college applications stand out and reflect their genuine selves. Tune in for invaluable insights on creating a compelling college application that truly represents who you are.

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TRANSCRIPT

Sharon Genicoff: 

Each student in my opinion should be able to list three distinct reasons why they want to go to a school. And it should not include a US News and World Report ranking.

Sheila Akbar: 

Hi, Friends, welcome back to the podcast, I am really excited to just get right into it. Today, my guest is Sharon Genicoff, who is a college counselor at a Magnet High School in northern New Jersey, she also had a career as a PR executive in sort of a former life. And she’s been able to use her skills from that job and apply them to advising students on choosing colleges and approaching their essays and the entire college strategy. So in today’s episode, she really goes through her methodology of helping students understand their identity, thinking through their school strategy, and then communicating all of this in their college applications. So take a listen. And I hope you get a lot out of this. It’s a really great interview. Sharon, thank you so much for joining me today.

Sharon Genicoff: 

Thank you for having me really excited to be

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I’m looking forward to this conversation, I here. think you have such an interesting perspective on how to approach college admissions. And it also really aligns with, you know, what we believe here at Signet. So I’m excited for people to hear multiple ways to do this and keep the same sort of student focus, a focus on fit a focus on authenticity in mind. So let’s start with what you do. And then we’ll back up talk about how you got there.

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yeah, absolutely. I am a school counselor at a Magnet High School for high achieving students in Northern New Jersey. I have been there about 11 years.

Sheila Akbar: 

You must have some strong students.

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yes, absolutely. They amaze me each and every day.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, they always do. Right. They keep us on our toes. Okay, and then tell us your journey. Because I know you didn’t start there.

Sharon Genicoff: 

Absolutely not. If you had told me when I was about to begin college that I would become a school counselor helping students with the college process, I would have probably laughed in your face. So I am actually a PR executive public relations turned school counselor, I worked in the fashion and beauty industry helping brands tell their story through to just no and then eventually social media outlets. I was helping launch new brands into the beauty and fashion space, which meant I was helping them create a compelling story that would resonate with their target audience. I also helped existing brands reinvent themselves year after year, so they could continue to captivate and engage with their existing audience. While I really loved working in this industry. I always had a deep passion for helping people. I actually went to college as a psychology major, and then switched to communications, because I took a class and I just found it really exciting. After I was sort of in the NPR industry for 10 years, I went back to my roots by transitioning careers and becoming a school counselor.

Sheila Akbar: 

Now, before we turn on the recording, you’re telling me about your own college process? You kind of memorized the college guidebook, can you tell us that story?

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yes, I was such a college geek. And I still am today. And I’m very proud of it. And I can geek out on college admissions with anyone on any day. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about. The first thing I when I meet someone, I’m always like, Where’d you go to school? Why did you choose that school, I just find it so fun. So when I was in 10th grade, my dad got me a college handbook. And it had like 350 colleges in it. And he said, start doing some research, figure out where you want to go to college. And I was in awe. I read every single page of that college book. And through my research, what I really found was each college had so many differences, whether it was class size, or location majors offered, I really began to learn back then. And I don’t even think it was a term used so much when I was in high school. But fit is really what I was seeing in this college book, I learned that I really needed to use this tool to determine what would work best for me and who I was and what would allow me to achieve my goals. This understanding combined with my background and PR is how today in my current role as a school counselor, I like to help students tell their own story in the college application.

Sheila Akbar: 

Now, clearly, I mean, you kind of hinted at this when you were summarizing your career in PR, you were helping brands tell their story in a way that resonated with their target audience. That’s the whole job of the college application. Right?

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yes. And it’s so funny because it took me a little while when people were like oh, you’re switching from PR to becoming a school counselor and helping students with the college process. That is so different, but she’ll exactly what you’re saying. In about a few months going into it, I was like, I’m doing exactly the same thing.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, just drawing on that former Geekdom to the college sets that you had memorized. So yeah tell us a little bit more about that. Because I think when people think about brand, and the college process, I mean, I know for me, my initial reaction is like, Oh, I don’t want teenagers to think of themselves as a product to be marketed. So I know you have a really, I think, ethical approach to this that is not as yucky as my initial reaction. So tell us a little more about that.

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yes, absolutely. This is not about when you hear that term brand, it can feel really icky. What I want to do today is I want to break it down into three buckets. Students can feel really confident about packaging their brand, I’ll use the word in their college applications. The first bucket that I want to discuss today is identity. This is a student’s values, characteristics, interests, and experiences and how they relate to their goals and aspirations. This is essentially helping you craft your genuine brand and your opportunity to evoke emotional connections with the people who are reading your applications. By doing this, you’re really making your application more memorable, I have my students create a chart to explore their identity. And this can be also helpful when building out the Activities List and brainstorming for the supplemental essays as well. But this is really how to identify those key messages that can be carried out throughout the application materials, I like to be down this chart into four buckets. So it’s interest experiences, characteristics that have made you successful and the values you’ve gained, I’m just going to give you one example of how this could work. Let’s say my interest is swimming. And my experience swimming is on my high school swim team. The characteristics that have made me successful in swimming is I’m athletic, I’m disciplined, and I’m independent. And the values I’ve gained, being as part of this team is really that community aspect. By putting all of these together, I have a sense of sort of who I am. And you can continue to do this with all of the activities you’re a part of, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be a formal activity. If your interest is I really like taking out my phone and taking pictures and photography’s my interest. Tell us more about that. But really figuring out kind of what those characteristics and interests are and how you can communicate that with the colleges.

Sheila Akbar: 

I love that so much. Number one, it’s very tangible. I think when we tell students, well, what are your values? Who are you? They’re like, what kind of cosmic question is that? Where do I even begin to start answering that. The other thing I love about it is that it forces students to reflect first, it’s about them, not about the college. Gotta think about what you need, who you are. And then you can start to think about, okay, what college is fit that, not instead of, you know, a lot of people get obsessed with the name of a college or the brand of a college, they try to make themselves fit that college, but that’s the opposite thing that they should be doing. Right?

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yeah, absolutely. And I love that you brought up that term values, because when I started doing a lot of value based activities with my students in high school, they looked at me like I had three heads, they were like, what is that a goal? And I was like, No, it’s not a goal. It’s a value. And what I actually do when I go into classrooms is I have a chart that shows all like an example of 50 values, just so they can understand it. And now they’re getting pretty good at it. So they’re like, Okay, I know what the difference between a value and a goal is. Yeah, so I really encourage students to take some time. And think about that.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, that’s absolutely something we do at Signet as well we do we bring out a list and say, here’s some values, what resonates with you. And then maybe there are words on this list that you know, mean nothing to you. Maybe there are other words that are missing that you really think define who you are. But I think that’s very interesting that you say that your students when you first started talking to them about values, they thought you met goals, and I’m reading this great book right now, that’s called never enough. And it’s all about this achievement culture that we have in our education system that persists into the working world, and completely leads to burnout and a lack of meaning. And I think that teaching students to identify their values or to think about themselves as operating through a series of values and understand what their friends values are other teachers values are, how they align or when they might not align. I think that is so essential to navigating everything from education to career with a really solid eye on their mental health and a sense of humanity. So that’s just a little aside there. I’ll put the book in the in the show notes.

Sharon Genicoff: 

I’m gonna go get that because anything that I’ll use based I love and it’s all about the journey and what sometimes we have to remind students like, high school isn’t a stepping stone to college and college isn’t a stepping stone to, you know, grad school or med school or business school or whatever. You know, it’s the journey. So I think we definitely need to remind students of that.

Sheila Akbar: 

Absolutely. Okay, so we’ve got your first bucket, which is identity. And we’ve got this little four column exercise, which I love. If you have a template for that spreadsheet, I would love to link it in the show notes so people can take advantage of that kind of tool.

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. So the next bucket is strategy, this may come off as misleading, because this is not actually about how you can distinguish yourself from other applicants. In fact, in conversations, and I’m sure you’ve had these conversations as well, with college admissions reps, they’ve explained to me that they’ve basically seen it all. So when students think oh, I’m gonna put in the mail assented red paper resume to stand out, or I’m going to write this really out of the box, personal statement essay about how I’m a deconstructed chicken parm hero, you know, the list goes on and on. And colleges are always like, don’t try to stand out, that should not be your strategy here, going out of your way to try to stand out and appear different can actually backfire. And this is when your brand can appear in authentic, which is something we’ll address in the next bucket, which is communication. So strategy is, as we’ve been discussing, pretty much since the beginning of our conversation is about the applicant, finding the best fit colleges, for them, the colleges that will support their identity, their interests, their experiences, their characteristics and their values. This can be done by researching colleges, visiting in person or virtually doing an informational interviews speaking to current or former students, contacting a professor who works in the department, you’re interested in reaching out to a student leader, the club you want to join. So really familiarizing yourself with the colleges that you want to apply to each student, in my opinion, should be able to list three distinct reasons why they want to go to a school, and it should not include a US News and World Report ranking. Then once you’ve identified your best fit College, this strategy is showing colleges that you’re a good match. So it’s essentially this is my identity, your resources at your institution align with my identity. So if given an opportunity to attend your school, I can contribute and make an impact. You want to really customize your application to each college, you’re not repurposing those essays, which I always like to those why us essays, those are not just, you know, copy paste for each school on your list.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, well, I got a bunch of follow up questions here. One is, I love that, which is not a question. I understand. But we’ll start with that. But one, one question here is, I have a lot of students who I assign this kind of research to, after we’ve discussed some initial preferences, and I say, okay, here are like 15 schools that meet those criteria that we discussed. And I want you to research them using all the things that you just mentioned, they come back being like, nothing really stood out, or they all kind of seem the same. And I’m curious, especially because of the story you told us about. When you were in 10th grade, you noticed how different and unique each school was? What advice do you have for helping students see those unique characteristics because a lot of colleges do use the kind of same same kind of language to discuss their academic philosophy. If you’re going to be a math major, the courses are pretty much the same wherever you want to go. Right. So how can you tell what differentiates a college one from another?

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think what a lot of students do is, when they listen, the best thing to do is to get on the campus. But I know that’s not always possible. But what I say to students is, yes, they all have a different, you know, they all may use the same language, but there are distinct differences if you pay close enough attention, but I think it has to also be fresh in your mind. What I say to my students is when you’re on a campus, or where you are attending a virtual info session, or you’re meeting with a professor directly after that, record a video of yourself talking about the school, or take notes directly after that visit. Because if you don’t, I’m telling you like three hours later, it’s all going to blend and you’re not going to be able to recognize any differences within those institutions. And also, I think it’s about that emotional connection to the school and when I say that, I mean, the tour guide, the professor, the admissions rep who is speaking that I think is also You know, can you see yourself having coffee with this person? I think it’s the people also that really, you know, rather than that, like the the numbers and things like that, and the mission statement, I think that is really, you know, hearing firsthand from students and professors what they’re doing on campus, I think can make it a little more personal for a student.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I think that’s such great advice. It’s sort of like they should make like a little Instagram story for themselves. I mean, maybe they want to share it, but little story for themselves about, okay, this is what I did. And this is who I talked to. I also will say, I have a lot of students who were like, Oh, my God, I love this tour guide, or this tour guide was a dud. And so I hate this

Sharon Genicoff: 

school tour guide can make or break, right?

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. And so I always tell them, make sure you talk to a couple of people who are not the tour guide. Right? You’re going through campus tours over stop in at the Student Union. Or if you see a student walking through a path, ask if you can, you know, talk to them for a minute about their experience, because they think you want to get a couple of perspectives. Because, yeah, the one tour guide may be great, may not be great.

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yeah, absolutely. And I had a student recently who was on campus at a very large state school, and the professor in the department she was interested in took time to meet with her they had like a 30 minute meeting, you’d be surprised. And I think she really it was such a big school, the big state schools, those can blend like you may sort of not be able to differentiate between them, especially if you’re visiting know, a bunch of state schools in the same month, they may overlap. But she really found distinct differences in this department from meeting with this professor. And you think, Oh, this professor is so busy at this large state institution, but they took the time to meet with her. So you’d be surprised?

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I mean, I always remind students, the reason people go into teaching is because they love working with students. So you know, they may be busy. And you know, don’t take it personally, if they can’t spend that time with you, but many of them will absolutely be thrilled to talk to students. Okay, so the second question I had about the strategy piece, I love that you mentioned, you know, identifying the resources at the school that really match your strengths and values. Are there other ways for students to understand what a school is looking for? Beyond just okay, you’ve got this great study abroad program, I want to study abroad, or I love learning languages, or whatever it is, beyond the specific opportunities that are there. Are there other things that students might want to call out as matches? And how can they go about figuring that out?

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yeah, I think things like study abroad, you know, every school is going to sort of have that like think it’s seeing what that college offers. And then again, reflecting on what you’ve done in high school, that maybe connects you back to one of those opportunities, or one of those classes. So for example, I took AP Psychology in high school. And my favorite thing that I learned was this, we did this project on social psychology, I see that you have a professor here that is doing really similar research on what I worked on, I really, I feel like I can really build upon that if I had the professor as a resource to help guide me through that. So I think that’s an example of a match. It’s sort of showing how you as a student, can evolve and grow on their campus using the resources that they have, really looking within what you’ve done in high school, what they have there, and then how together, you can be a match whether it’s a club, it’s in the classroom, it’s community service that they’re doing on campus. I think that’s really how you can figure out how you can support one another and how you can enrich the campus.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I think so important to focus on I always tell students in their supplemental essays, they should be saying something about themselves, yes, that shows a campus how they’re going to take advantage of some kind of resource. I also point out that colleges have very strictly controlled budgets. And so every person that they hire, every institute that they establish every program that they have in place for their students, is because they think it’s important, and they want to attract students who want to take advantage of those opportunities, right? So because they have a professor of Persian literature, which is my own field, that means they care about that. And they want students to take advantage of that, right? They don’t want to have that investment go to waste and no one ever takes that class or no one ever goes to that institute or whatever it is. So that’s another way you can kind of tell what kind of students they’re looking for. And if that really resonates with your strengths and interests, then that that might be a really great match.

Sharon Genicoff: 

Yeah, absolutely.

Sheila Akbar: 

So that was your second bucket strategy. Now let’s go to your third which is communication. Is that right?

Sharon Genicoff: 

Communication. That’s right. This is really the authenticity piece that we were teasing. That out the beginning of our conversation, the style and the tone of the application. So now that you have your identity, and you have your strategy, it’s time to sort of package it all together and communicate your brand. This is really the personal statement essay, the Activities List, supplemental essays, interview, if they have won, a lot of schools now have that video submission, a portfolio, so really anything that admissions will consider when evaluating the application, the way that a student communicates, the application needs to be in that student’s voice. I’m going to say that one more time, the application needs to be in the student’s voice because colleges can really often spot that insincerity be genuine and don’t try to present a version of yourself that doesn’t align with reality. Remember, when you get to that school, you actually have to thrive there, you know, you’re the one going colleges and school counselors know when an essay is over edited by someone other than the student, because the style and tone will defer them throughout the rest of the application. For example, if you’re using really sophisticated language, as if every other word is like pulled from the soros.com. And you’re someone who may be the you know, English humanities isn’t really a strength, you’ve only taken maybe the CPE English classes, and you haven’t taken AP Lang or AP Lit and it’s offered at your school, but you’re using these really sophisticated words, that may appear a little suspicious. And that’s not to say you shouldn’t lean on others to ensure your communication clearly articulates your ideas, and identity, but they should not be altering your authenticity, a few trusted resources, maybe an English teacher, maybe a parent two or three really only if you’re working with a college advisor, or a school counselor, listen to them, they know what they’re talking about, I don’t recommend working with a college advisor like someone at significant taking the essay and then having someone else edit it because you’ve worked really hard with that college advisor on all of those writing materials. And they are a trusted adviser and you should 100% be listening to them. So that authenticity piece is super important. And then also communication could be a missed opportunity for students to tell their stories. If a component of the application says optional, optional is never optional, you should absolutely still be doing it. So whether it’s an optional essay, or an optional interview, or an optional video submission, do it because that’s a missed opportunity. Also, if you’re at a college fair, or if a admissions rep is visiting your high school, or they’re hosting a local events, go, and even if you have a test that period, and you can’t stay or you can’t make it that night, go introduce yourself really quick or send them an email, just communicate where it makes sense. But you don’t want to over communicate. And what I mean by that is don’t send admissions reps, things that they aren’t asking for. They don’t want to see, you know, 10 certificates that you gotten for various achievements beginning when you were eight years old, unless they’re asking for it. But I don’t think anyone is asking for it. So only communicate with them what they’re asking for. And optional is never optional. Those are also the big parts of this communication bucket in addition to the authenticity.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, well, I would add to that missed opportunity part is when students want to tell the same story, or convey the same message in multiple essays that a college is going to see, right? That is the waste of really valuable real estate, right? If you don’t, you know, if your main essay is talking about your involvement in the chess club, you don’t want to mention it again, in detail in another essay, because they already know that story, you’re missing out on a chance to tell them some other dimension of your experience or Personality, right?

Sharon Genicoff: 

100%. And also, letters of recommendation from teachers and school counselors can also be missed opportunities. And I think a lot of high schools have gotten better at this. But I don’t recommend students give the school counselor and their teachers a print out or email them their resume or their activities list because they know all of that information. Well, it’s not going to hurt them that the letter is repetitive. It’s a missed opportunities. What I recommend and a lot of high schools have our brag sheet, and the questions should really be tailored. So they’re not speaking to just what would be on the resume. But what I remind students is if they don’t if their high school doesn’t have some sort of brag sheet, and the teacher counselor just asked for a resume, go one step above that and try to think about something in that teacher’s class or something that you did within the school that the colleges may not learn about anywhere else, like a specific anecdote that they can share. And I have an example of this years ago when I run state testing another fun part of being a School Counselor at my school. And when the students were were finished testing, they had scratch paper that they could just doodle on. And I noticed one of my students was writing poetry on his scratch paper. And it was just something that I observed. And I wrote that in his letter of recommendation that he because he was applying for creative writing. So I wrote about how I observed him writing poetry, and I thought it was just something really special. And then something very authentic to his brand. That was important for me to share with colleges, if you are someone who really loves something in a teacher’s class, and they may not know that, and it could speak to your identity, tell the teacher.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, and you know, sometimes, as you said, they asked for some information when they agree to write your recommendation. Some teachers don’t. But I always encouragement students to when they ask for the recommendation to lead with, Hey, we did this project in your class, and it totally blew my mind and opened my eyes to this, this field that I think I’m now going to pursue. So I thought you would be a great person to write me a recommendation, right? You’re not forcing their hand, you’re not telling them what to write, but you are planting that seed. So you can be pretty sure that’s going to show up in the recommendation somehow.

Sharon Genicoff: 

Exactly. Give them the information that you want them to share with colleges. Absolutely.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, fantastic. Well, we’re getting close to the end of our time here. Any final advice that you would leave for our students?

Sharon Genicoff: 

Well, really, it’s just remembering that building your personal brand is not about creating a facade, but rather showcasing your true self in the best light possible. The goal is to give college admissions a clearer sense of who you are, and how you’re going to contribute to their communities. If you follow these steps, with identity, strategy and communication, I think that you will package a really strong application, and colleges will really get the true authentic you.

Sheila Akbar: 

That’s great, Sharon, thank you so much for sharing this, I think people will find it so useful. And it’s lovely to talk to you. Your enthusiasm for this work is so clear.

Sharon Genicoff: 

Ah, thank you. Well, as I said, still a college admissions geek at heart.

Sheila Akbar: 

Now, I really enjoyed myself, Sharon is a really dynamic person to talk to. And the way she approaches this process with her students is really exactly in line with what we do here at Signet. Now she gave you a really great tool, it is linked in the show notes, I encourage you to use that with your students, even if they are not applying to college yet. It never hurts to start reflecting on who they are early in the high school process, they will have all of this great material to pull from, by the time they’re a senior. But more than that, that process of reflection is so key to their personal growth. And you know, that’s what I’m here for. So try that out. And even though the tool seems simple, of course, working with your own kid can be challenging. In many other ways. This could be a really great place to bring in an older sibling, a cousin, family friend, that your kid really trusts a coach, something like that. And of course, if this is something you need help with, I’ve got people on my team who do this work on a daily basis and are really, really skilled at helping students understand themselves at this deeper level that is going to help them find motivation, and understand how college, their education, their career, all kind of fit together in building the life that they’re looking forward to. So please don’t be shy, reach out if you need some help. I’ll also put in a plug for our free community on circle called How to get into college. That will also be linked in the show notes here where you can meet other families that are going through exactly the same thing. Get weekly advice and tips from me and my team and join us for free office hours every other week. So hope you take advantage of that. All right, everybody. We’ll see you next week. Bye bye.

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