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Episode Notes

Episode Title: Segment #3: Application Strategy. A Guide to Build a Standout US College Application.

Episode summary introduction: Segment #3 of the 10-Segment Podcast Series to help students in 11th Grade build standout US College Applications. This segment provides a process for students to develop the best strategy for their applications. Subscribe for Assignments.

In this segment, Athena Lao and Rob Franklin of Admissionado lead us through the discussion.

In particular, we discuss the following:

  • What is a Working Vision?
  • How to Create your own Working Vision
  • How to embed the Working Vision in the College Application.

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Introduction to the Segment #3 [2:08]
  • Step 1: What is a Working Vision? [5:21]
  • Purpose of Working Vision [6:30]
  • How to Create a Working Vision [7:44]
  • Academics: Creating a Working Vision [9:17]
  • ECs: Creating a Working Vision [10:31]
  • Personal: Creating a Working Vision [11:38]
  • Example Profile & Working Vision [13:37]
  • Step 2: First, The Numbers  [19:33]
  • Step 2: Next, Extracurriculars [21:57]
  • Step 2: Then, Essays [23:04]
  • Step 2: Finally, Letters of Recommendations [25:26]
  • Segment #3 Assignment [28:04]
  • Call 2 Action - Subscribe for Assignments [29:16]

Our Guests: 

Memorable Quote: “I am bound for future success because...

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.


Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

Venkat Raman  0:06  

Welcome to the podcast, College Matters. Alma Matters. We podcast, personal college stories, and all things college. Check us out and subscribe at alma matters.io, forward slash podcasts (almamatters.io/podcasts).

To give you a taste of things to come in this segment, one of the experts, Rob Franklin, a graduate of Stanford University, shares his pre-college self portrait called  “Working Vision”.

Here’s Rob.

Rob Franklin  0:38  

...That I was bound for future success, because in my academics, I was really well rounded, and was a pretty high performer, taking a lot of AP is with an interest, particularly in the humanities, language, languages in English.

And I had a real interest in like political action, as well as kind of the intersection of politics, and writing and creativity, and I evidenced that by being an editor on my high school's literary imprint, as well as beginning an organization basically, my my high school was first Gay-Straight Alliance, which required quite, quite a lot of work with the administration, as well as faculty.

And so I think that my strongest character trait was probably risk taking, because I was kind of coming from this Southern prep school and was willing to sort of, you know, take a risk in starting this organization and putting in a lot of work to get it up and running.

Venkat  2:08 [Introduction to the Segment #3]

Hello, I am your host, Venkat Raman.

I want to start with a BIG Thank You to the 1000’s of listeners of the previous segments in this series, and interest in the assignments, evidenced by the signups.

I am excited to bring you the 3rd Segment of our 10-Segment Podcast series - A Guide to Build a Standout US College Application.

You just heard Rob Franklin share his “Working Vision”.

You will hear all about it, in Today’s Segment on College Application Strategy.

As you may remember, our last Segment #2 in February was on Extracurriculars and Summer Break Planning.


Here’s a Pop Quiz based on Segment #2. Listen to this and we will talk on the other side:

Rob Franklin  3:05

And then the third which is kind of in my opinion, the unsung hero of, of one's participation within extracurricular is..

Venkat Raman  3:17

Ok. We want you to tell us, “Who are the unsung heroes that Rob is referring to?”.

The first 10 Correct answers will receive a FREE 30-min Counseling session over Google Meet.

Email your answer to “podcast at almamatters.io”, with the Subject: EC. Good Luck!


Now, on with Segment #3.

Getting into good US Colleges has always been very competitive. The Pandemic and its aftermath have made things even tighter. You just have to look at the jump in the number of applications to the Top Schools for 2021 Fall.

So,  the topic for this Segment, Application Strategy, becomes extremely important.

In this Segment we will address

  • How to “capture” all your achievements and accomplishments as High Schooler, and
  • Articulate and present your case in a compelling manner in the College Application,
  • To stand out from the other applicants.

Creating your Application Strategy is a 2-Step Process:

  • Step 1: Create, what is called, a “Working Vision” based on your Profile so far;
  • Step 2: Embed the Working Vision into the various parts of your College Application.

To get into greater detail, I am joined by two Experts you’ve met in Segment #2

  • Athena Lao, Head Mentor at Admissionado, and
  • Robert Franklin, Mentor at Admissionado.


Venkat  5:06

So Athena Rob, welcome back to segment three of our podcast on How to build a standout application.

So let's get started. So Athena, what are we talking about today?

Athena  5:21  [Step 1: What is a Working Vision?]

I am very excited, Venkat, because this month, we are focusing on what I think many of our listeners have been waiting for, which is the application strategy itself.

And everything that they are that you all are learning over these past two episodes, we had this one and the next one's over the next few months they all are part of this. And we understand that this is a huge topic.

But today, we're going to sort of summarize and break this down into two steps. So for your application strategy,

step one is that we're going to come up with a working vision. And

step two is we're going to apply that vision to the different components of your application.

And you may be wondering, what exactly do you mean by working vision Athena, and by working vision we at Admissionado are referring to a kind of self portrait. So think about how you are painting this portrait, this picture of yourself to show to colleges who you are, what you care about, and why you're a good fit for their school.

Venkat Raman  6:26  

So why do we need a working mission?

Athena  6:30  [Purpose of Working Vision]

At Admissionado we like to start with this working vision because rather than just taking the disparate elements of big application process, just thinking about oh, I do this and that and trying to create something out of that, at the end, it's better to have a big picture first, that can help you be more strategic and the decision decisions you make about the opportunities that arise while you're in high school.

It's better to backwards plan to work backwards from what you want to show colleges, and then to fill in the gaps and provide as much evidence as possible to that that speaks to that vision to help persuade colleges that what you're presenting them is in fact true.

Those who are able to clearly communicate who they are and how they differentiate themselves from those around them are the ones that end up getting that admissions letter in the end.

In short, if you're going to take one lesson away from Why is this working vision so important, it's that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. And by starting with a vision, and working backwards, you're able to achieve that goal.

Venkat Raman  7:39  

Okay, so that sounds great. So how does one go about creating this vision?

Athena  7:44  [How to Create a Working Vision]

Great question. Because we have a paragraph, we're going to craft a paragraph together, that is going to help you create this working vision.

During this next section. I want to encourage all listeners to pause the podcast as I'm describing each sentence each part of this next paragraph, so that they are able to just follow along and put everything together.

When we create this working vision paragraph, we break it down into three categories that are going to correspond to three different sentences. 

  • The first is a sentence about academics, all of the grades, test scores, what you're interested in studying at a college and maybe beyond.
  • The second sentence is on extracurriculars, what you're doing outside of the classroom, and why you're interested in that.
  • And then the third part is personal. So what are the character traits that you're displaying, in general that make you a great candidate and will make you a great contributor to whatever school you attend.

These three categories align with what a lot of schools are looking for in their criteria. and they help you think about how you show that you're bound for future success.

That phrase down for future success is something that I repeated a lot during episode one. And that's why it's coming back here in this episode.

So over the next few minutes, we're gonna craft that paragraph together. So it's gonna go something like this.

Athena  9:17  [Academics: Creating a Working Vision]

So I'd like for you to start with, “I'm bound for future success because” that's the first, first phrase.

Next part in academics, either

  1. I'm a specialist,
  2. I'm super well-rounded, Or
  3. I'm fairly well rounded, but I have a few interests in this __________.

So I'm bound for future success because in academics, one of those three things:

  1. So I'm a specialist means that you're really passionate, have really high grades really care about this one subject, know you want to study that in college;
  2. super well rounded means that maybe you're not exactly sure what you want to do in college, but you're doing really great and just about everything.
  3. Fairly well rounded but clear interest in specific areas means that yes, you're doing pretty good on a lot of different things. But you know that maybe you want to combine your interest in two different subjects like Biology and English, Chemistry and the Arts, Music and Math, whatever combination that you find super interesting. That's the first sentence.

Athena  10:31  [Extracurriculars: Creating a Working Vision]

Second sentence. I am interested in these topics or bigger issues.

So in this part you can name any sort of social issue, current event, or world kind of problem that you want to help solve in the future, Or maybe you're helping solve now, I don't know don't want to make assumptions. So that could include environmental issues, poverty, women and girls empowerment, politics, maybe food security, or some other topic that I haven't named here, build out the last part of the sentence.

So I'm interested in these topics or bigger issues and I show that in my extracurriculars by doing one to two of the following:

Categories for the extracurricular section include community service, research, leadership, sports, music, arts, a paid job, or other so you can name something else here that you might like instead.

Athena  11:38  [Personal: Creating a Working Vision]

We talked about academics and extracurriculars and finally the third and final sentence is

My strongest character trait is that I __________________.

This is where we bring in SPARC. If you'll remember SPARC stands for

  • S -  as in seizes like seize the day.
  • P - as in pursues, you take on challenges you pursue challenges.
  • A - as an asks, like asking questions, being intellectually curious,
  • R -  as in taking risks, and
  • C - as in creating.

Venkat Raman  12:09  

Here is Athena Lao, a graduate of Harvard University sharing what would have been her pre-college “Working Vision”.

Athena  12:17  

So hi, I'm Athena, I'm bound for future success. Because in academics, I'm super well rounded. I don't know exactly what I want to study in college, but I am pretty good at a lot of different things.

I'm interested in the topic of education, because I, that's something that really impacted my life and help me and I show that in my extracurriculars by doing a lot of community service, and in music.

And my strongest character trait is that I, I pursue, and I, you know, take on challenges that I encounter, and try to do things that are a little bit riskier, even, even though people might say don't do it, Athena, but I am adventurous and take that on and make opportunities happen where others don't see them.

Venkat Raman  13:23

Maybe we can get an example with Rob here. Something that he can take a profile and translate it into a working version for our audience.

Rob  13:37  [Example Profile & Working Vision]


So let's look at the profile of a student named Ian and so he has a 4.3 GPA, so really strong academically. And looking at his actual course selection. He has a lot of high level, high level courses, honors and 8 APs, mostly clustered in science and math. So he's taken biology. You think in physics, he's taken AP environmental science, and received fours and fives on all of those. He's also taken AP Calc A B, on which he received a five and AP Calc BC on which he also received a five but this one's particularly impressive because the school doesn't offer AP calc bc he just took the exam and studied for it on his own.

Additionally, he took kind of the crown jewel of his academic profile is that he took AP Computer Science as a sophomore and received a five on that exam. So digging kind of a bit deeper into his background. We can see that he consistently performs well across subjects but he has a specialized skill set and interest in math and computer science. And that is important since he was young, he's been teaching himself programming languages using online forums like YouTube and Reddit. And entering high school, he pretty quickly exhausted the course offerings related to CS, and enrolled in more advanced courses at his local community college.

Now looking at extracurriculars, he has kind of a budding interest in environmental science and sustainability, which is starting to feel like potentially a direction he might want to go professionally, and has joined his school Sustainability Council. But because he only joined it as a junior doesn't have any leadership positions there.

He does have leadership positions on the Math Olympiad team on which he's captain. He also runs cross country kind of a mid-level performer there and is a participant on his high school's robotics team, where his, his primary contribution is that he programmed using advanced programming languages like C++ and Python, the robot that won first in a regional competition last spring.

And this robot kind of combined his interests in practical practical applications of CS and Sustainability by sorting out recyclable material from the trash bin, so this robot can basically detect if something's plastic well, and therefore recyclable, and pull it out of the trash trash bin.

So his teachers, as well as all of the judges of that competition, can attest that his skill level is well beyond that of most of his peers.

On a personal level, he, he's evidenced, a few of these different SPARC categories. I mean, he really kind of has evidence being an asker, by having this this genuine intellectual curiosity that allowed him to reach expert status, so young and computer science. He, he's a pursuer, he was able to pursue the kind of highest level most challenging CS offerings that his school had to offer, and then continue pursuing that interest at the college level as a high school student. And then he really seized the day by evidencing all of all of his skill in building this robot and really bringing it home for his robotics team. Sure.

Rob  17:43  

So if we look at this kind of personal statement for for someone like Ian, yeah, it might read like some, like, like the following.

I'm bound for future success because,

In my academics, I'm high performer across the board with a specialized skill set and interest in STEM and stem, particularly math and computer science.

I'm interested broadly in sustainability and the practical applications of CS, and have shown that by participating in the sustainability Council on robotics, putting an immense amount of work and research into building a robot that can sort out recyclable materials like plastic from the trash bins at school, which one first and Northeast Regional competition with hundreds entrance.

And my strongest character traits are asking my intellectual curiosity that led me to teach myself programming languages beginning in middle school, and pursuing, taking on the challenge of college level coursework relevant to my interests as a high school student.

Venkat Raman  18:47  

Very good. So that's an excellent example of the working version. So I'm sure our listeners can now transcribe their own profiles into a working vision. And we'll describe the assignments at the end of this podcast.

Very good. So thank you, Rob. Thank you, Athena.

Rob, Athena  19:09  

Thank you.

Venkat Raman  19:12  

Okay, so Rob, we just talked about the working vision, talked about what it is and how you go about creating it.

So Step 2 is how to incorporate that into various parts of the application. So how do you go about doing that?

Rob  19:33  [Step 2: First, The Numbers]

Sure. So let's start with the Numbers.

So these are kind of going to be the, the base of your application. And when I say the numbers, I mean, the grades, the test scores, all of the stats, basically, that you're going to be putting into your into your application.

So it comprises your high school transcripts, which you will generally have to request from your high school as well as your cummulative GPA, along with your scores on standardized tests. So that can be the ACT, that is SAT and SAT Subject Tests, as well as AP or IB exam results.

Also relevant here is the breakdown of your coursework. So did you consistently take the highest level courses available, how many APs you have, how many honors classes, etc. And the reason all of this is is relevant how it kind of helps your application is that these numbers are considered the most important or biggest indicator of future academic success, and therefore your likelihood of admission at a top school. While they of course don't determine destiny they give, they should give the student a sense of what tier of schools they should be aiming toward.

So to do for this, I would recommend pulling together all the information that you currently have available, including the transcripts class breakdown, your GPA and your standardized testing scores.

And you can benchmark those stats against the admission banned provided at schools of your choosing to determine how you currently compare.

Third, you're going to want to start to build a strategy to bridge the gap between where you are today and where you'd like to be by application season. So let's say you have, you still have six months, your strategy could look like improving your SAT scores 200, 200 points to be within that band, or doubling down in classes where you may currently have say, a B plus, and know that having an A minus might really make a difference.

Rob  21:57  [Step 2: Next, Extracurriculars]

Okay, so the second category coming after the numbers are your extracurriculars. And so we spoke a good deal about extracurriculars in the last episode, but what this is, are all of the activities, work and service experiences that you've had outside of the classroom, including summers. And the reason that these are relevant is they begin to offer a more cohesive picture of who you are as a person, your skills, your passions, your interests. And therefore they, they're a huge indicator of how you would excel in a collegiate environment and beyond.

And I would say, that the “To Do” for this, this one is if you haven't already, go back and listen to February's podcast, wherein we provide a ton of helpful guidance on kind of how you can start to in a more structured way, look at your extracurricular activities.

Rob  23:01

And yeah, I guess for essays, I’ll turn it over to Athena.

Athena  23:04  [Step 2: Then, Essays]

Thank you, Rob.

So, in addition to your grades and the extracurriculars that he talked about, you also have to write essays.

We know that many of you have heard about all of this. And depending on the schools that you apply to, you'll have to write anywhere from one to six, maybe a few more essays covering a variety of topics.

If you're using the common application, which most schools employ in the US, there will be one main essay that you can, that, we is also known as the personal statement, from what you can pick up, you can pick from one of eight prompts for that. And you have to write an essay around 650 words that can show something about your personality or your life story that might not show up anywhere else in the application.

In addition, some schools might ask for what they call supplemental essays. So these are shorter essays of 150 to 400 words, on topics pertaining to why you are really interested in that school in particular, how you might contribute to the community, what your particular academic interest is, in that, at that school, it really helps the school understand why us and not just any other school where you can study this thing.

There are exceptions to this, this number of essays. So for example, the University of California system, Georgetown, maybe a few others, they utilize their own application platforms and have a specific number of essays that are just for those schools. But this is a very general overview.

So as you are kind of preparing to write your essays, really think about that working vision, think about how you can show your personality, your character and your aspirations to a degree that none of the other aspects in your application can.

I, I have said this right before, but I want to emphasize that really use a space to talk about something that will not be mentioned anywhere else in your application, keep the admissions committees interested in what you have to say.

Next, next month, we're going to talk more about essays. So look out for the April podcast where we'll really dig into how to make the most of the essays in your application.

Athena  25:26  [Step 2: Finally, Letters of Recommendations]

Finally, the letters of reference or letters of recommendations are another important part of the application. So these are one to two page documents that your teacher coach or another close mentor might provide to your universities. This is a way that they can share this the way that someone who is not you can talk about how awesome you are. Because when someone else is saying that you're awesome, it's way more impactful than if it's just us saying that you're awesome.

In, in these documents, the the adult or sometimes even the peer can talk about your academic merit your personal attributes. Sometimes us what we call a school counselor or a school administrator might give more context to what your school is like and where you're coming from. It gives context for your grades or the classes that you might be taking. And sometimes schools will even accept additional LORs from people like research supervisors, if you've done independent research, if you've had a job, they might accept one from a manager from that, from that organization, or someone who knows you well from an extracurricular you've done. And a few schools even accept recommendations from a peer so someone your age.

And really, you know, think about how these documents can show the strength of your relationships with the person writing your recommendation, and show how you are really invested in a specific academic interest or how you show your leadership in a specific extracurricular, use these LORs to highlight character traits, that SPARC that you have that none of the other parts of your application are able to show.

If there's one theme and all of this, it's that each application component needs to complement one another. I've been saying make sure this part shows something that no other part of the application shows because you will, it's almost like a diamond, every different facet, facet should reveal a different part of you and kind of lead up to this one whole beautiful diamond, this beautiful vision of who you are.

So that colleges say, that's the person that we want to give the acceptance letter to. If you've been following along, by the end of this podcast, you should now have a slightly more defined working vision. And you should understand the strands of the application that you're going to apply that vision to. And

Rob  28:04  [Segment #3 Assignment]

So what you'll do now that you've listened to the episode, is go to the working vision template and the assignment section of alma matters.io (almamatters.io/assignments).

And you're going to put together your own self portrait paragraph emphasizing the SPARC qualities that indicate that you're destined for future success. So you can listen back to our examples, and try to replicate that for your own profile.


Venkat  28:38

Hi again!

Hope you liked Segment 3 of the Podcast Series and found it useful.

In this Segment on Application Strategy, we covered

  • What is a Working Vision?
  • How to Create your own Working Vision;
  • How to embed the Working Vision in the different parts of the College Application.

As mentioned earlier, based on this Segment we have an assignment for students in the 11th standard/grade. You can get our Counselors feedback on your assignments.

Venkat  29:16   [Call to Action - Subscribe for Assignments]

Now, You have to Subscribe to get the assignments.

It’s easy To Subscribe.

Just email to podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io] with the Subject: Assignments.

We will send you an email with instructions on the assignments.

As before,

Here’s a great deal for you:

Submit your Completed Assignments before our next Segment is published,

AND you will get a FREE review by Our Counselors.

So, hurry up!

And by the way, if you missed the previous Segments, jump on it now. Do the Assignments. Time goes by pretty fast!

Our April Segment will be on on Application Essay Writing & the

May Segment on College Selection.

So stay tuned.

Venkat  30:04

This series is for high school students in their 11th Grade/Standard and who plan to apply to US Colleges at the end of this year.

This series is being created in collaboration with Admissionado, a US-based college counseling company.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

To stay connected with us, Subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify or visit anchor.fm forward slash almamatters [anchor.fm/almamatters] to check us out.

Thank you again for listening to this podcast.

Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

Summary Keywords

US Colleges, College Admissions, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University, Extracurricular, International Students, SPARC, Seizes, Pursues, Asker, Risker, Creates, Assignments, SAT, Summer Pre-College Programs, Yale University, Union College, University of Wisconsin Madison, Counselors, Admissions Officers, Wisconsin Idea.

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