A Lesson from a College Essay

Posted on April 14, 2016

One of my advisees came over to my house to work on his college essay the other night and as we explored the Common App prompt and brainstormed, it became increasingly clear he didn’t need help writing his essay, he needed help branding himself. Our conversation quickly turned from focusing on what he had accomplished during his four years at Proctor Academy, to who he was as a young man.

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The prompt asked: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Essentially, the question asked about the ‘what’ of his life.  I implored him to consider the fact that what I do does not define me as a person, it is merely an outward manifestation of inner qualities. At different times of each day, society may define me by an archetype, but is that truly who I am? Or am I something much deeper, much less transient. The archetypes society so quickly wants to thrust upon me as a definition of self are certainly a part of who I am, but I must not let them define me.

Similarly, if I define my identity by something deeper than what I do, I must make sure the outward manifestations of that identity are consistent with who I believe I am. This may be getting a bit too philosophical for a blog post focused on school branding, but the point is we need to be honest with ourselves. If we claim honesty as piece of who we are, we better be sure our actions are consistent with that identity.

Our schools should consider this prompt as well. Do we allow ourselves to fall into society’s trap of being known for a specific program, athletic team, or faculty member because it is sexy and sells in the short-term? Economic pressures certainly provide convincing reason to lean heavily on the program-based brand, but I would argue this is short-sited. Instead we must work hard to ensure our brands are defined by who we are rather than by what we do. 

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Here’s your homework, take a look at at least ten independent school websites around the country,Proctor Academy’s included. Jot down your first impressions of the school’s brand based on copy, images, navigation, and video messages. Where does each school’s brand lie? Is it in ‘what’ they deliver to students or is in ‘who’ they are? Brands rooted in the ‘what’ may appear powerful, but lack the staying power needed to navigate the turbulence that will undoubtedly accompany each of our schools over the next decade.

Just as my advisee found out the other night, it is easy to talk about what you do, but much harder to talk about who you are.

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