Admission Science's Hub and Spoke System
The Character & Personal Skills Spokes
Character and Personal Skills are the criteria that the greatest number of students overlook, but they are extremely important.
Think about it from the college’s perspective. When they admit a student, they're not just agreeing to teach that student for four years. They're welcoming that student into their campus, community, and alumni network.
In a sense, the student will represent that college for the rest of their life. That’s why top schools care so much about character and personal skills.
Character includes traits such as determination, responsibility, and the ability to overcome obstacles and adversity.
Personal skills include helpfulness, kindness, empathy, and the ability to lead or cooperate with others.
You should be displaying them throughout the whole application, but there are two places that are especially well-suited for showcasing these traits.
The first place is in your recommendations.
How to Get Rockstar Recommendations
Most students get this process completely backwards. They ask for a recommendation letter and then leave the rest up to the teacher.
But here’s the secret: The best recommendation letters don’t just talk about academics. They should also endorse your character and interpersonal skills. In addition, they should be detailed, with specific examples highlighting your best traits.
The key is to write a thank you letter to your teachers in advance, detailing exactly how you’ve grown in their classes. In your thank you letter, talk about how much you’ve learned from them, while also reminding them of specific stories or moments you’re especially proud of.
By doing so, you're not only showing gratitude and telling them that you’ve learned a lot in their class (which, by the way, makes them feel good)... but you’re also supplying them with the details that they can use in their recommendation letter.
This creates a win-win situation. The thank-you letter makes your teacher’s job much easier, and guess what? Their job (in this situation) is to write a superb recommendation for you!
The second place to highlight your personal skills and character is in your essays.
How to Write Knockout Essays
Many students make the mistake of writing way too many different essays. They try to customize an essay for every prompt and every college they apply to, which ends up spreading them way too thin.
Here’s the solution:
Focus on writing just THREE core essays. And really go the extra mile to refine and hone them until they are perfect. Because at the end of the day, the following three core essays will cover you for almost every application:
The first is called The Power Essay. This is the main essay for the common app, and it’s a piece that every college will read. The key here is to focus on telling your central story, while showcasing your strength of character.
The second is called The Meaningful Activity Essay, which is the best place to showcase your leadership skills. This is also your most versatile and flexible essay, which you can essentially copy-paste across multiple prompts with minor tweaks.
And the final essay is The Why This College Essay. This essay allows you to show why you’re a great fit for a specific college. But don’t make the mistake of writing a new version of this essay for every college. Instead, focus on writing ONE version that is as polished as possible. Then, simply make small customizations.
We just want to drive this point home, because it’s very important. For your essays, quality matters infinitely more than quantity.
Don’t try to write a new essay for every prompt you come across. Focus on polishing those three core essays until they are the absolute best they can be... And then make slight tweaks to adapt them to various essay prompts.
(We also have proven essay templates that take ALL of the guesswork out of writing the perfect essay. We’ll show you how you can get access to them later.)
But for now, that brings us to the center of it all, which is YOUR personal story. Your unique case for why the college should accept you.
Bringing It All Together
Our biggest tip here is that more is not always better.
Imagine reading a novel like this: Chapter one introduces you to the protagonist; Chapter two talks about his dog; Then chapter three tells you about the time he broke a leg while skiing.
By the end of the book, you have all of these snippets of information, but you’re left wondering: What was the point of the novel?
That’s how most students write their applications. They don’t think about trying to tell a single, coherent story about who they are and why the college should accept them.
If you’re an aspiring chemist, you should NOT be going to poetry camp for your junior year summer. Instead, aim to do innovative research with nearby professors.
If you love engineering, see if you can get involved with robotics competitions. Or even better, start a mentoring program to teach kids how to build simple machines.
If you plan on majoring in business, write an essay about the time your shipment of supplies was unexpectedly delayed, and how you were able to think on your feet and negotiate with a different supplier for rush delivery.
Case Study: Princeton & UPenn Acceptance
Taylor was already a strong applicant. She founded her own acapella group at school, placed 2nd in two international backgammon competitions, and was very active in the student union.
While her scores and activities were strong, her holistic story was way too scattered. In a school with hundreds of students in her class (and just 4 school counselors), her counselors were far too busy to help her hone her college admissions strategy.
(In fact, Taylor told us afterwards that her counselor didn’t even reply to her emails for most of the admissions season.)
Taylor struggled with figuring out which activities were important, and which weren’t. Even though it was unintentional, it looked like she was just stuffing her resume.
That would have been a big red flag to colleges because colleges want to see authentic and focused passion.
Using the Hub and Spoke System, she re-branded and restructured her entire application to focus on her love for music. She put the spotlight on the right activities to tell her unique story. As a result, Taylor was admitted into her top two Ivies: Princeton and UPenn.
The takeaway is this: Be authentic, make it fun, and tell YOUR own story.
Holistic does not mean everything has to look perfect. It just means that all parts of your application should work in harmony to make your unique case.