The Application Persona: 8 Examples and How They Are Effective
February 21, 2019
The Application Persona: 8 Examples and How They Are Effective
You may have heard that it’s better to be angular rather than well-rounded when building your profile for your college applications. This generally means that it’s more strategic to have a few key areas of focus for both your academics and extracurricular interests in high school, rather than try to be a jack-of-all-trades. You can also see this as a type of intentional minimalism: you’re placing less emphasis on the activities that aren’t as meaningful for you so that you can strive for larger impact in the things that matter more.
In the admissions office, angularity often also signals something else: an applicant who is memorable.
What is the Application Persona?
It’s a natural tendency to remember information that is unconventional, one-of-a-kind, or unexpected - but harder to create impactful impressions out of things that are all too common. I’m more keen to remember a student who spent her summer feeding yaks out of her hands and wrote her personal statement about it (true story!) compared to a student who wrote his essay about a public speaking engagement that made him nervous.
That’s not to say that factors like academic credentials, strength of the application materials, letters of recommendation, or high school context don’t matter - they do. But when you’re facing a huge pool of potential applicants, making sure that your story is memorable is just as crucial for success.
We refer to this as crafting the application persona, or the “tagline” or theme that students can use to drive the strategy behind their applications. The application persona encompasses everything about a student’s application, from their letters of recommendation, to the tests that they submit, to their essay topics and how their activities list is formatted.
Key Components for an Application Persona
The application persona is:
- Simple: it should be summarized in a quick phrase (not a paragraph)
- Memorable: no one else should be able to have the exact same persona
- Strategic: it should highlight an applicant’s strengths and combat their weaknesses
- Forward-thinking: it should help admissions officers envision what your impact will be on campus & beyond
I hope you now have a better sense of what an application persona is and why it matters. That said, it can be hard to understand what the application persona really means in practice. To get a bigger picture and figure out what yours could be, take a look at some sample application personas below:
Programmer for Social Impact
In this example of a standout application persona, the candidate is someone who is using data and tech to drive community change at a local level. For example, this student could create a sustainability app to help community members support local zero or low-waste grocery alternatives. I would expect to see a mix of strengths highlighted in this applicant’s materials: SAT Subject Tests that show strong scores in Math, Chemistry, and/or Physics, several coding experiences, and activities that capture an interest in sustainability studies. I’d also want to see more engagement at the community level, where this applicant could demonstrate leadership skills.
The Creative Communicator
This is a student who has diverse interests: computer science, translation, and choir. But rather than coming across as a disparate applicant, the application persona would intentionally draw together all three fields through the lens of communication. This candidate could highlight the crossover between fields by creating an app that incorporates translation or language, orchestrating a choir that intentionally sings transnational music, or demonstrating a passion for translation by self-studying languages.
This is a candidate who leverages art as a platform to launch social justice initiatives. For example, the applicant could create her own online portfolio that has an integrated activism piece (e.g., selling hand-painted patches that advocate to close the gender wage gap, hosting a crossover gallery night/fundraiser for a local non-profit). This student could also host a podcast or publish a written series of interviews with local female artists. While each applicant’s personal statement should be reflective and insightful, I would also expect this student to be more artistic throughout the application: whether that’s taking more creative license with the supplements or crafting a personal statement structure that is atypical.
Cultural Anthropologist & Storyteller
This is a student who fosters human connections and relationships through a historical, anthropological lens. For example, this may be a candidate who has completed museum internships or field research in archeology. I would also expect to see more community engagement from them - potentially as a part of affinity club or local organizations. This would be a student who is a strong writer and can contextualize historical events from a cultural standpoint.
Third Culture Kid Heading into International Politics
This is an applicant who is a third culture kid (TCK), or someone who has been raised in a culture different from their parents or where they were born and is using their diverse perspective to spearhead a passion for international politics. For example, this could be a student who has attended school in two different countries or completed language immersion programs over the summer. I would expect this student to be involved in more traditional activities like Model U.N., or to have created something unique to celebrate their diversity (for example, an Instagram account/blog that shares stories about people’s relationship to culture and home). I would hope this student has experiences that reflect an interest in politics (working on a local campaign, interning for a think tank), but also uses their personal connections as a main bridge throughout the application.
Future Researcher Bringing Together Eastern & Western Medicine
This is an applicant who draws insights cross-culturally to change the face of medicinal practice. This application persona is strong because it demonstrates niche in the field of medicine - it’s clear that this is an applicant who’s interested in holistic processes. I would expect this student to have spent some time shadowing doctors with a range of practices, investigating the history of Eastern Medicine through a blog or podcast. I would also hope this student is exceptionally strong in the sciences while balancing out their STEM experiences with activities that are more culturally focused.
Resilient Team Leader & Social Connector
This is an applicant who is working to overcome personal adversity to lead to a stronger community. This could be a great application persona to combat potential weaknesses - whether that’s a low grade in a class (or a few!), a disciplinary record, or lower test scores. This candidate would be someone who is driven to positively impact those around them - I would expect to see high levels of leadership and engagement. I would anticipate that this applicant’s essays would be more people-focused, while the activities would also demonstrate the the difference this student made (e.g., the essay could be about the experience of joining a running club, while the activities list would highlight a 5k fundraiser). By emphasizing impact, the application persona is drawing from this candidate’s strengths, while proactively addressing any weaknesses.
Aspiring Entrepreneur with Lots of Heart
This is an applicant who is mastering financial theory to put it into action for change in their community. This could be someone who is involved with local non-profits, who has created financial literacy clubs at their high school (or at the community level), or who has been involved in more traditional experiences (like DECA, FBLA). I would expect this student to lead with their social impact initiatives in the activities list, but use the personal statement to show more vulnerability (e.g., an essay about connecting with a close friend, or a time when their view was challenged and they had to shift perspective as a result). So many students are interested in finance that finding ways to emphasize the personal in your application (vs. the cut and dry of your actual academic interests) can help you hook an Admissions Officer’s attention immediately.
Making Your Own Persona
Now that you have a sense of what the application persona can look like - try to craft your own! Write down your strengths and potential weaknesses as an applicant, and then jot down the activities you care about most. What common themes or patterns are emerging? How can you draw together your experiences to create a simple, memorable, and unique narrative?
Once you’ve brainstormed an application persona that connects your academic interest, top extracurricular endeavors, and any relevant personal characteristics, evaluate the list. Are there any application personas listed that another student could also claim? How and where can you become more “niche?” Use this as an opportunity to start thinking about how you’re going to tell your story - it’s never too soon!