Want to learn how to compress a normal-sized student into a few sheets of paper? It probably never crossed your mind! But to do well in college admissions, you'll need to convey lots of information in limited space.
Test score and grades convey important-but narrow-information. Any top college could probably fill their entering class several times over with applicants whose scores and grades are equal to or better than yours, so you must show that there is something unique about you that sets you apart from those of similar academic credentials and makes you worthy of admission.
Capturing the Elusive Self
When applying to college, the first thing you need to remember is that the admissions committee doesn't know you from Adam. Enlighten them by distilling the essence of yourself into a few main ideas and putting them on paper. It is impossible to talk about everything you've done or all the facets of who you are, so carefully choose only those things which communicate competence, leadership, growth, initiative, etc.
Who Are You?
The relevant features of who you are (for college application) fit into three categories: defining characteristics, personality descriptors, and background. You must distill two to four main talking points from each of the three categories.
Your defining characteristics, as I call them, sum up who you are and who you want to be in life. Articulating this isn't easy, but you should be able to come up with some ideas that give a good snapshot of you, including major motivations, life and academic goals, and career aspirations.
By personality descriptors I don't mean things such as "shy" or "quirky," but relevant characteristics such as initiative, determination, and intellectual curiosity. By convincingly demonstrating desirable characteristics you can greatly improve your chances of admission.
The main points about your background could include important people or events that influenced you in the formative years, your family's philosophy of education, etc. Unusual circumstances, such as growing up on an isolated farm or being a missionary kid in the South Pacific, can make you much more attractive to colleges, so be sure to include them if they seem appropriate.
What Are You Doing Here?
You must also demonstrate that you have spent your time well. Do this by developing two to four main talking points each about work experiences, activities, and academics.
For work experience you should have one talking point about each job you have held in high school and what you learned from it. Unusual jobs-such as working for a circus, being an auctioneer's assistant, or running your own business-can be especially memorable for an admissions officer. However, almost anything will do as long as you can show that you did or learned something worthwhile.
Similarly, each of your major activities (be they extracurricular, co-curricular, or otherwise) needs to have a point and an explanation of what you learned from/contributed to the activity. With regard to activities, you must employ some bookkeeping in order to receive full credit for what you do. Carefully keep track of hours spent, especially community service hours, and the number of people reached, number of workshops taught or demonstrations given, etc. It is also important to know if your activities are on a local, state/regional, or national level. For example, most of my time in Boy Scouts counted as a local activity, my sister's participation in a state youth orchestra was a state/regional level activity, and attending the Research Science Institute was a national activity.
Admissions officers would rather see a few long-term commitments than lots of short-term ones. Additionally, a few serious activities are much easier to get across in an application. So if you are in junior high or early high school, try to focus your energies on doing a few things well. You will probably get more from this personally as well as being more competitive for admission.
For academics, figure out the important academic milestones in high school and how they have shaped your development. Usually they should be successes, but failures may work if you can convincingly demonstrate that the failure taught you something important.
Let Them See the Real You
Each point should illustrate something important about you and should fit into an overall portrait of you. As far as is possible, you need to make sure that your main talking points are communicated in the application, interviews, essays, and recommendations.
In this process, I am not advocating that you construct a fake persona. That is a bad idea and will probably result in your getting burned. The chances are that the admissions officers will see right through the facade or that you will end up in an institution that isn't suited to you. A breach of honesty is serious and could have negative consequences for both you and other homeschooled applicants.
They Have Wish Lists, Too
Once you understand how you plan to present yourself, you must learn to market your plan by understanding your prospective "customers." Your strategy will probably need to change a bit from school to school. Generally speaking, you won't want to completely change your strategy for each college. It is better to stick closely with your original marketing plan, but emphasize different aspects of your experience to be in keeping with what the school is looking for.
Research college websites and admissions materials to determine what each college wants and how you fit into that ideal. They will all want the standard things like solid academics, but each school's philosophy will determine a set of characteristics it desires in students.
This is best illustrated by a series of examples, which are a combination of other's observations and my own experience in working with each school.
MIT places great value on initiative and on the willingness to take risks. If you have singlehandedly started an activity or built something that wasn't there before, emphasize it.
The University of Chicago seems to value a slightly artsy brand of intellectual curiosity. If you are a person of wide-ranging intellectual interests-say, a prospective math major who wants to take advanced courses in Japanese language and culture-make sure that they know it.
Harvard seems less interested in what you do than in your motivations. During my admissions interview, my interviewer always followed up a question about academics or activities with a "Why did that interest you?" or "What is your motivation for pursuing that?" type question. Applicants to Harvard might profit by discussing what drives them.
The Big Picture
You will use the same talking points in all phases of the application: essays, interviews, letters of recommendation, and the application itself. It's worth your time to do this first step right.
Don't think of the marketing process as an annoyance that you just need to survive to get into college. Marketing is a very important skill, no matter where you go in life. Think of the admissions process as Marketing 101. It just might be the most important class you will ever take.