Hello, dear reader! This blog post is not the product of one author but, rather, of most members of our blog team. Each entry included in this blog post is an answer to the question, “How did you, personally, tie together all the elements of your college application?” It’s a common refrain in college admissions advising that it’s necessary to “tie together” the pieces of your application (your classes, extracurriculars, academic interests, etc.) by orienting it around a particular theme. We at Dewey Smart thought it would be useful for you to have a concrete idea of how this is accomplished, so here are five students on how they, themselves, did it! For more guidance on how to tie together your college application, you can get into contact with a Dewey Smart tutor today!
As a computer science applicant from a school without any slightly-related extracurriculars, I knew I had to play my college application from an angle that took attention away from my lack of experience. So, I listed out my extracurriculars and examined them as a whole, looking for a common pattern across them. The biggest pattern I saw was a focus on improving the education of my school. I had taken it upon myself to establish several clubs, including a science honors society and film club. Most of my time, however, had gone to my peer tutoring and college advising service that I had also started to address the lack of resources for prospective college students at my high school.
After considering my experiences as a whole, I wanted to give myself a “brand” that was able to connect all of these activities together in a cohesive package that admissions officers would find memorable. The profile that I decided to assume was that of a community-focused programmer with a passion for making education more accessible through artificial intelligence and software. A main focus on improving education tied in well with my experience in establishing clubs for both general and college-based purposes, specifically trying to make education more equal, tied in well with my experiences at an underfunded public high school. And, to top it off, establishing a concrete personal goal related to programming allowed me to incorporate computer science into my theme, and it provides ample essay-writing opportunities.
To transfer this theme I had established into my college application, I made sure that all of the various parts of my application painted this picture as closely as possible. The primary way that I achieved this was by writing my supplemental essays, when possible, about my experiences creating clubs and how it “inspired me” to establish my lofty goals of AI-based educational revolution (despite me barely knowing how to code at the time). For my coursework, I took the one computer science class available. My activities section was arranged in a way that highlighted my community involvement and dedication to enriching others’ educations rather than a more traditional CS applicant’s technical extracurricular list. And, of course, I used my interviews as chances to solidify my personal application theme by reiterating my goals and highlighting relevant extracurriculars.
I tied my college application together by connecting my academic interests with personal experiences. My theme was how my interest in studying socio-political structures in Latin America is driven by my relationship with my identity and heritage. I don’t think a theme has to be an academic one, but it can be great to fall back on if you don’t feel like you have a passion for one particular thing. In the midst of all the experiences a college offers, it is still an academic institution. Therefore, I was able to frame a lot of my supplements as: “I want to study Latin American politics, history, etc. . . . because of my identity, and ______ University is the only place I can do that.”
Including a personal element to your theme is absolutely essential. Whether or not there really is a personal driver to your academic, artistic, or whatever interests, you most likely have some experience that connects to it. That is why I found it helpful to think about life experiences that I can draw from first, and then connect it to my overall theme.
Something I struggled with was incorporating my extracurriculars into my overall theme. In high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I took part in random activities. But something I did realize is that there’s almost always a way to frame your school life the way you want. For example, I said that my experience writing in my high school newspaper gave me a glimpse into the interaction between institutions and citizens, which is something I want to study in Latin America. That being said, picking a theme that is actually important to you makes it much easier to frame your extracurriculars with. Don’t pick a theme around academics if you don’t like school, and don’t fake a passion for an extracurricular you hate. As long as you have some interest, there is almost always a way to spin it.
What is a college app theme? I would say it’s some combination of a career, personality, life experience, and future goal made into a phrase. So mine would probably be something like Asian-English-major top-of-the-class-athlete-and-poetry-club-president-retired-chess-champion who’s not afraid to be different and be a force of social change.
I actually used different themes for different colleges that I applied to because I wasn’t yet dead-set on being an English major. For Cornell’s international labor relations program, I tried to narrate myself as an interdisciplinary person with experiences in different academic pursuits. On the other hand, for Princeton, Columbia, Brown, UPenn, and UCLA I focused on characterizing myself as a literature lover with deep philosophical thoughts and a rich background in the humanities. There were some schools like the University of Washington that I knew I could get in with any kind of theme, and so I presented myself as a writer/psychologist who disrupted the political status quo through research and by connecting conservative Christian people with liberal LGBTQ+ people to encourage more peace.
Want more specificity? Let me bore you with the specific details of my college application and how I tied mine together! I was poetry club president, captain of the varsity tennis team, vice president of the tennis club, vice president of the chess club, I took mostly humanities AP classes, I had a poetry blog with 300 followers, I completed a pretty impressive research experiment, I was learning Russian and French and classical guitar, I taught English in Taiwan for two summers, I’d volunteered as a small group leader at my church for five years, and finally I am a male, Asian American student pursuing an English major (very uncommon). So this is what I chose to show because they were my pursuits that demonstrated leadership, interest in humanities, and commitment over time. As you might notice from my slew of items, tennis is quite different from poetry and chess and learning languages or volunteering for that matter. However, I used my essays and activities descriptions to make the connection. For example, my Asian American background ties into how I taught English in Taiwan. My experience teaching languages fits in with my curiosity for learning other languages. My athletic background was used to display my leadership in various contexts other than academics. My interest in music sort of fits in with my humanities profile and interest in learning about cultures.
Now here’s what I didn’t choose to show (depending on the application): I had also volunteered at a soup kitchen and the public library for quite some time. I also did flag football and soccer for nine years. I played the trumpet for four years and the piano for five years. I was part of the honors society, the creative writing club, and a few others. I did Link Crew for a year. I volunteered at dozens of summer camps. Sometimes I mentioned that I taught tennis, but sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I didn’t mention that I was a chess player.
However, sometimes it was really helpful. When I told my English teacher I was a top 1% chess player in the nation, it changed how she wrote her recommendation letters about me. She wrote about how during class discussions, I wouldn’t raise my hand often, but, whenever I did, I always produced a complex, original thought, which fit into the way chess players take a lot of time to consider each move.
Personally, I never really thought about my application in terms of a “theme.” The way I thought about it is as a “story.” The difference is minute, but I found it to be helpful. Let me explain: when I was 14, I took a First-Aid/CPR course and fell in love with medicine. What I loved about it was the combination of both science and serving others. These two pillars of medicine have defined so much of my life and were present within my application. My extracurriculars were chock-full of volunteer hours, human rights club, and other activities that were in the service of others. My transcript was loaded with a ton of science (and English/history) courses, especially chemistry, biology, and physiology. And my Common App was about when, for simply absurd reasons, I was interviewed on NPR and dunked on the Weather Channel for naming a winter storm “YOLO” (true story). It was a unique and amusing tale, but the point of it was to show that I was a serious person who didn’t have a problem calling out misplaced irreverence.
You could say that my application had a theme to it—medicine is probably the best word for it—but to me it was more of a story. It told the reviewer something about who I was and what I cared about. If you want your application to be coherent and memorable, you need to know, at least a little, who you are and what you care about. Which brings me to the question: Who the hell are you and what the hell do you care about? Start there, and the application will be a lot easier. If you’re daunted by the enormity of this task, then get some help. The tutors at Dewey Smart can help you find the themes, stories, and throughlines in your life and bring them to life. We also have an internship match program that helps you explore your interests by connecting you to companies looking to take in and mentor high school students. Click here to schedule a consultation with our tutors and here to apply to the match program!
Tying together all the components of my college application was somewhat of a tricky task, since, at first, I had to figure out what there was to tie together. I didn’t have many extracurriculars to include on my application—and my involvenemt in the activities that I was able to list was not particularly lengthy—because of difficult family circumstances that lasted until around the end of my sophomore year of high school. Thus, in tying my application together—particularly by means of my Common Application essay—I had to explain my relative dearth of extracurricular experiences while simultaneously demonstrating the personal significance of the extracurriculars that I did engage in.
While accomplishing this feat required a great deal of thought over many months, with no shortage of input from friends, family, and teachers, I accomplished it by linking the (particularly financial) struggles that I had experienced to the activities that I chose to engage in in my junior and senior years of high school. Specifically, I framed my engagement with community service organizations as driven by the hardships that I had experienced with my family, and I painted my efforts to fundraise so that I could participate in an academic program in Rome against the financial troubles that I faced. While it was a challenge to bring my application together in this way, I think that it worked quite well, and I ended up making an area of my application that I perceived to be lacking into a core component of it, focusing on community service in both my personal statement and supplemental essays.