In Introduction to Brand, you learned why having a great admissions brand is so important. But… what is an admissions brand? We all know a strong business brand when we see one: Nike, Frito-Lay, Google. But few of us stop to think about what it means to be a brand and how that might translate to our own personal and professional lives.
Business brands are defined by personality and history. They adhere to a narrow set of traits (both real and imagined). They’re shaped by public perception and defined by the legacy they leave behind. In essence, a business brand is the sum of the stories we tell about it; stories told by the company itself, its creators, and its customers.
In contrast, an admissions brand is a small, short-lived representation of yourself. It’s unlikely to ever be seen outside of the admissions committee deliberation room (unless you show it to your mom), and it won’t make its own mark on the world. But it can leverage personality, traits, and stories in the same way that a business brand does. And it does have the potential to change the entire trajectory of your professional life.
Fundamentally, a brand is built to differentiate something, and in admissions, that “something” is you! With the power of a strong, differentiated brand behind you, you can break away from the crowd and get accepted.
Admit.me defines an admissions brand as:
Key Character Traits
These are the nouns and adjectives that define you as a candidate. We recommend identifying three to five key character traits that are representative of you, based on your own thoughts as well as personal and professional feedback you’ve received. Examples of key character traits include: proactive, self-reliant, imaginative, efficient, and compassionate. (You can read more about how to choose your character traits in How to Build an Admissions Brand.)
When choosing your traits, you want to think about the types of traits required to be successful in the career you are seeking. For example, business school is looking for leadership, strategic thinking, and analytical minds; law schools may be looking for attention to detail, clear thinking, and a strong moral compass.
The number one mistake that candidates make when deciding on their key character traits is making them too broad. For example, “smart” is a terrible character trait. It’s not terrible to be smart, but when you say “I’m smart,” an admissions officer hears “I was too lazy to come up with a better word than smart.” Be as specific as you can, and avoid buzzwords whenever possible.
What to do if this is you: Narrow your trait by tailoring it to the story you’ll be using to demonstrate it. Start with a broad trait, look for stories that demonstrate it, and when you’ve chosen the best story, see if there’s a more specific word you could use to describe how you behaved in that particular situation.
The second biggest mistake applicants make in selecting their traits is choosing undefendable traits. While traits are how we define brand strategy in admissions, the real force of your brand is the execution. It’s in the stories you use to show the admissions committee that you’re the right choice. Thus, if you can’t find a story (at least) that demonstrates the trait you chose, you can’t use that trait.
What to do if this is you: Drop the trait! Frankly, there’s nothing you can do to change who you are and the experiences you’ve had. If you want to be frugal, but in reality you’re quite the spendthrift, don’t claim to be conservative with money. Moreover, if you really are creative, but you can’t think of a single good example of when you’ve utilized that skill, there’s no point in including it as a key character trait.
These mistakes are common because most applicants don’t realize that brand traits and personal stories go hand-in-hand. We all want to be seen as competent, bold, methodical, and collaborative at the same time, but few of us can boast a story that demonstrates each and every one of those traits.
Simply put, these stories are examples of a time when you demonstrated a certain trait. In order to qualify as a brand story, an experience must be something you participated in, not just something you witnessed or admired from afar. This is the minimum bar for a story, but it is not the only criteria.
The next requirement is for the story to be a clear demonstration of one or more of your identified traits. We all have that one story we’re particularly fond of that doesn’t demonstrate much of anything. Maybe there was a month when every argument swung your way and every proposal you made got approved. It may have been awesome, but it doesn’t say anything about you. This is the third brand mistake applicants often make. If you find you have stories you want to tell that are missing character traits, here’s what to do:
Cut the story or choose a new trait. If you feel your current traits perfectly capture who you are, but none of them show up in one of your particularly good stories, consider saving that story as a happy-hour anecdote rather than an application brand story. However, if you’re completely married to the story, you might consider axing a less-relevant trait and creating a new one based on the story. Think hard about which is more important to you, since you can’t have both within the confines of a narrow and consistent brand.
Let’s say you have a solid story that demonstrates a trait you’ve identified. The last test of the story is whether it’s well-developed. Basically, an undeveloped story is one that doesn't have enough detail to be interesting and convincing. If your whole story is “I had a tight deadline, there was an issue, and I solved it to meet the deadline”, your story is underdeveloped. A developed story will have a beginning, a middle and an end, just like a story in a book. Ideally, it will involve character growth and take place over a significant period of time.
If a story has a lot of components, involves other people, and includes at least one major issue you’ve faced, it’s probably a full story. If a story took place over the course of six months, it’s also probably more developed than one that took place over just a few days.
But just because a story is underdeveloped doesn’t mean you can’t use it; it just means it’s not a stand-alone story. If you include an underdeveloped story as an anecdote in an essay with its own theme, that’s perfectly fine. Other places you can use an underdeveloped story include:
- Within short answer questions
- During the interview
- On your resume
Three Spheres of Experience
- Personal: What types of personal challenges and adversity have you gone through in your life? If you have a personal story of triumph or overcoming odds, there are likely some gems in your personal story that needs to be told in your application.
- Professional: What have you experienced in your professional career that demonstrate the key character traits you want to tell? What project or accomplishment best speaks to who are professionally?
- Community: This is often an underutilized area within the application, which makes it a great place to leverage if you have significant community service experience and can demonstrate character traits within your volunteer and community experiences.
Unique and Authentic
Admissions officers are tasked with building a class of incoming students that will complement and learn from each other. They seek to build diverse classes with students from differing backgrounds and perspectives to foster a compelling learning environment. In your brand, you want to show admissions officers the unique perspective you will bring to the classroom. What sets you apart from other applicants applying to the same programs? There’s only one you — make sure the admissions committee knows that.
On another note...we’ve had multiple admissions representatives from schools tell us how they constantly identify candidates who mimic or, in some cases, completely copy previous applications.Don’t do that
- Their story is not your story. Be unique – admissions committees don’t want another version of an old applicant. They want a unique candidate that adds something new to the classroom experience and school legacy.
- Your style of writing and engagement is likely different than theirs. If you model your application after someone else’s, the application will seem “forced” and the flow of the application will likely be choppy
- Schools know there are “model” applications out there. They read them. It’s easy to spot someone who models an application off an old application. It’s even easier to spot someone who copies an old application (it’s called technology, people).
- Admissions officers can see right through your BS. They can tell when an applicant isn’t being totally honest or is saying what they think they need to.
- Being yourself in the admissions process will ensure that you don’t end up in the wrong school. If you pretend to be someone you’re not, you’ll likely get accepted to schools that just aren’t right for you, or worse, rejected from one that actually is.