When most people think about the US college application process, they think about their grades, the SAT or ACT test, and probably the college Essay, but they rarely think about their Candidacy Story. Nonetheless at The Spike Lab, we start coaching our new students by helping them determine their Candidacy Story, and we spend a lot of time on it because it is arguably the most important part of the college application process.
So… what is this mystery Candidacy Story? Why is it so important, and how can you create one?
The Candidacy Story (from now on referred to as Story) is a concise summary of how you, the college applicant, want to be remembered by the colleges you’re applying to. It is not the Essay. In fact, no college application ever asks students for their Story. Nonetheless it is what colleges care about the most.
Selective US Colleges receive thousands of applications. For example Stanford receives almost 43,000 applications and Harvard receives more than 34,000. Therefore, each admissions reader only has a short amount of time to read each application. They read through the Essay, the recommendation letters, your grades, test scores, etc. and come away with a quick snapshot of who you are. Of course, it’s not a deep understanding of who you really are, but hopefully it captures some of the most important aspects of your values, achievements and character. This is your story!
When crafting your college application, your real goal is for the person reading your application to walk away with the best possible story about you. Your standardized data speaks for itself, but the rest of the information must be crafted to tell the story that you want to tell. If you are a deeply creative person with great passion and potential in the Arts, then you want that to come across and be compelling.
Back in the ice ages of the 20th century when I was applying to colleges, my top choice was Stanford University. I was a strong student: ranked in the top decile of my class and performed very well on my standardized tests. I was also passionate about soccer and ice hockey and ended up captain of both the teams in High School, even setting some school records. However I wasn’t recruited by Stanford’s coaches so those athletic achievements, although helpful, weren’t sufficiently compelling to Stanford. The result? I wasn’t accepted. It was 9 years later for my MBA that Stanford would admit me, primarily because I had a stronger story; my experience having lived in Argentina for 5 years and having founded and directed a successful nonprofit called HelpArgentina was more compelling. Now, admissions is significantly more competitive which means it takes even more today to stand out. I wasn’t thinking about any of this back then, but in retrospect it’s more clear to me. Students who understand the way these life-changing admissions decisions are made and who plan ahead accordingly will be more likely to succeed.
I wrote my college essay about my love for carpentry and how I taught myself carpentry in the shed behind my family’s summer home, but I didn’t actually do that much carpentry in High School. It’s just one example, but if I had started thinking about this earlier, I think I would have done more carpentry and engineering in High School to support my passion for the fields and to align myself more with a field that Stanford is very strong in. Instead I focused on the school sports and extracurricular activities that were more closely in my line of sight: those that were pre-built into my school schedule and involved my friends and community.
Long before you start writing your application, you should be thinking about your Story. If you’re in 9th or 10th grade, you should be thinking about what your Story might be in October of 12th grade when you are applying to colleges. Is it going to impress the people reading your applications? Will it stand out from the thousands of other applicants who you’re competing with? If you want to get into one of the more selective US Colleges, then the answer to these last two questions better be yes. Too many fabulous students go through the motions of High School studying hard to get good grades and getting involved in a bunch of school extracurriculars, but at the end of day, their story — like my example described above — is too similar to other applicants to get noticed.
The Spike Lab privately coaches high-achieving students who want to get into the most selective US colleges, and we start early in High School because it takes time to develop the type of achievements necessary to make a student’s Story compelling. We always start by helping our students determine their own unique Story because without it they wouldn’t know where to focus the rest of their efforts. For the same reason every serious company sets clear strategic goals to work towards, students need to focus their limited time and energy towards participating in activities and attaining achievements that reinforce their story. The Candidacy Story is our students’ “North Star”, their guide on the long, difficult High School journey of developing a profile that will be attractive to top US Colleges.
What goes into a great Story?
In addition to outstanding academics, top colleges are looking for students with a Story that makes them stand out. This Story must deliver on what colleges care about:
- Impressive Achievements
- Unique interests
- Demonstrable Passion
- Strong Character
And all four of these components should be aligned to make for a clear, consistent and tight narrative. For example, if I had pursued my carpentry with more zeal in High School, perhaps I would have taken a few community college vocational classes on the side and worked on getting the permits and then building an awesome treehouse in Manhattan’s Central Park such that it got noticed by local press and eventually written up in a book on America’s best treehouses!
Academic excellence (high GPA/class rank, rigorous classes and high standardized test scores) is an important part of your Story. You do need to prove to colleges as objectively as possible that you’re a very smart kid, but the data speaks for itself and for top colleges academic excellence is necessary but not sufficient. So we don’t stress standardized academic achievement measures when helping our students craft a Candidacy Story. The challenge is to go beyond the numbers and build a persona that admissions officers fall in love with and immediately want in their community.
Guidelines to creating your Story
Write it down. Summarize your 12th grade self in 250 words or less. Don’t worry if you’re not sure. Getting a clear narrative down on paper is hard and the sooner you start the better. Use the simple framework described above to help you craft a good Story.
Update your Story. Expect to keep revising your Story as you develop. As you learn more about yourself in High School, you will revise your Story, but don’t worry. That’s normal.
Do drafts. Show your 1st and subsequent drafts of your story to people who know you and to people who understand college admissions — preferably people who know both you and college admissions. When asking for their feedback, we recommend that you ask the following questions:
- After reading your story, would people think to themselves “this person is interesting! I want to meet him/her”?
- Is the story sticky? Will college admissions readers remember the person described in this story? The best framework for thinking about what sticks is written up in the book Made to Stick, by Chip Heath. It’s called the SUCCES framework which stands for:
- Simple — find the core of any idea
- Unexpected — grab people’s attention by surprising them
- Concrete — make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later
- Credible — give an idea believability
- Emotional — help people feel the importance of an idea
- Stories — empower people to use an idea through narrative
To conclude, your application and your interview collectively will tell your Story to colleges, but don’t wait until you need to write your application to figure out what Story you want to tell. Be intentional about this and start early. In fact, it’s never too early to figure out what you think your Candidacy Story is. Middle and High School is a time to explore and find yourself so it’s normal for the story to change as you grow and change. It’s a fun activity to envision your future self and then very rewarding to work towards making that future person a reality through hard work. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re a high-achieving kid and this interests you, then get started by writing a first draft of your story and showing it to others. If you have any questions, feel free to contact a member of our team, and we’d be happy to guide you through the process.