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Building Your Applicant Profile vs. Telling Your Story

By Rachel, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

The college application process is stacked with buzzwords, including the often-used “holistic review” and “hook.” Right now, more and more families are trying to decipher terms like “profile building,” “applicant profile,” and “telling your story.” What do these terms mean, and how do they differ? How do you approach your applicant profile? How do you tell your story? What can families do to prepare?

Building your applicant profile and telling your story are two parts of the same sentence. Let’s dig into what they mean and how to do them.

The Applicant Profile: Building the Foundation  

Think of the applicant profile as the foundation of your story. Every year, you add another layer. Your first two years of high school make up the base of the foundation. Here, you will explore the things that interest you — things you’ve done before and perhaps some new things, too. Maybe that’s a sport, theater, or Model UN. Perhaps it’s the Asian Student Union or robotics.

Academically, you’re taking your required classes and adding some rigor in your interest areas or a few core classes like honors English or honors geometry. You’re paying attention to your overall trajectory. What do you need to do to get to the most advanced level of classes in your areas of interest by senior year? Will a recommendation from a teacher be required to take AP classes? Do you need to take a class over the summer to get a requirement out of the way so you can make room for electives in your interest area, like doubling up on languages? All these steps will support the story you end up telling.

The jump between sophomore year and junior year can be a big one. During your junior year, you may be taking some of the most challenging classes offered. This could be the first year of the IB program or when you’re taking AP bio and AP calc. The areas in which you choose to push yourself should align with any major you may pursue. This can be as basic as STEM vs. humanities. Or, if you would consider a major in either, just keep taking the classes that interest you the most at a rigorous level. For example, if a student is interested in engineering, colleges will be looking for a profile that includes advanced-level math — if not the most advanced-level math offered — with strong grades.

While you’re building your applicant profile by choosing where to take on rigor in your coursework, you are also continuing to take all core classes in your junior year. Colleges like to see you define your interests through your academic choices while continuing to engage in all topics. For the most selective schools, meeting graduation requirements is not a reason to drop science, for example.

Outside of the classroom, you may decide to drop something that no longer serves you. Perhaps you’ve been a gymnast your entire life, competing in state-wide or even national competitions, but you don’t have any interest in doing gymnastics in college, and the Olympics aren’t in your future. This is the time to determine whether you are still enjoying it enough to continue doing it or if there is a more productive use of your time. And, let’s be honest, it’s a lot of time between daily practices and weekend meets. Maybe you’re interested in joining student council or deepening your involvement in something you’re already doing. This isn’t a sign of quitting — it’s a recognition of evolving interests. However, it’s important to clarify this in your application.

These examples all demonstrate ways that you are building your applicant profile. Now, let’s look at how you tie these elements together to tell your story.

Telling Your Story: Tying Everything Together 

When senior year rolls around, your focus will shift from building your profile to examining what you’ve done and how it relates to your interests — academic and otherwise. In many ways, what you’ve done could have organically led you to your major of interest. Your desire to major in environmental science is a result of your work volunteering to combat climate change through a city-wide student action group, plus how much you enjoyed AP environmental science. This is part of your applicant profile, and sharing this journey with college admissions committees through essays is how you’re telling that story.

It can be hard to get to senior year and determine that the story you want to tell does not align with what you’ve done over the years. It’s okay if this is you — it happens. You will have the chance to write about your interests in your supplements. It’s okay to say, “I just discovered this, and I’m hooked.” Say, for example, you take AP econ as a senior and realize that type of behavioral analysis is something you’re really interested in. Take it a step further by reading more about econ and listening to podcasts. Embrace this new passion and incorporate it into your application, demonstrating your curiosity and enthusiasm for learning. You can continue to build your profile and support your story as a senior.

In the end, building your profile can take you on a unique journey, and showcasing that to colleges could be part of the story that defines you. Whether your path follows a straight line or takes unexpected turns, drawing connections between what you did and how it informs your interests will be an important part of your application. Remember, it’s never too late to refine your story. So, stay true to yourself, build your profile by exploring your interests, and, when it comes time to write your essays, let your story shine. And if you need a little guidance along the way, IvyWise counselors are here to help you build your profile and tell your story.

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