USA Application Guide
4. Personal profile
Your personal profile is the basis of your essay and your application at large. Although not a formal part of your application, your profile plays a central role in how to design your application. Once you’ve created your profile, you need to communicate it throughout your application. A strong profile will allow you to stand out among thousands of applicants.
Developing a personal profile is a life-long process. It is partially practical: by choosing which courses to take in school and which activities to do in your spare time. There is also a more abstract aspect of developing a personal profile: through reflection about who you are as a person, who you want to be and what others see in you.
90% of your personal profile already exists before you start working on your university application. Throughout the process you should therefore aim to formulate your personal profile in the best light possible, to highlight your strengths in a genuine way. Use the last 10% of your profile to give your application an “edge” that will complete your application and impress the university’s admissions committee.
How to get started
Firstly, we’ll cover a few things you can do to enrich the concrete and directly meritorious parts of your personal profile as well as give examples of different types of profiles. Later on, we’ll elaborate on how you can highlight the things you carry with you from earlier on in life (the 90%) through reflection and communication.
4.1 Personal profile: Contents
Here are a few examples of how three high school students have developed their personal profiles, and what contents they’ve decided to feature to highlight their unique profiles.
Sara “The Specialist”
- Developed a fascination for chemistry and biology at an early age. Focused on sciences throughout high school. Top in her class in the sciences.
- Had the opportunity to do a summer internship as a research assistant at a university cancer laboratory. Lead to a fascination for medicine and specifically cancer related medicine.
- High academic performance across all subjects. Works extra as a private tutor for primary school children.
- Once had a summer job at a residential home for elders.
Personal profile in application
This is how Sara used her personal profile to create a successful application for a programme within the field of medicine in the UK.
- Her advanced knowledge and experience in chemistry and biology impressed admissions committees.
- Academic credentials are not enough to excel as a medical doctor. The profession also requires “people skills”. Therefore she highlighted her social- and care oriented merits.
Frank “The Generalist”
- Focused on social sciences in high school with generally good academic performance across all courses, but lacking specialization and focus.
- Has engaged in many different leisure activities outside of school, both within sport (tennis, soccer, snowboarding), music (guitarist in a band) as well as politics (board member of a political youth organization).
- Frank is social and a good leader. He served as spokesman of the student council in high school.
Broad profile with one specific focus
- Upon reflection of his personal profile, Frank realized that he had very broad interests and engaged in many different activities. “A broad profile can be good, but I need to show my ability to focus and immerse myself in one thing”, Frank thought.
- Frank decided to focus on the tennis (won many medals). He also wrote a high school project about the impact of political decisions on the sports industry.
Personal profile in application
- Frank, being a strong believer in diverse experiences to enrich oneself, decided to apply to the broad PPE-programme (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) in the UK and to some liberal arts colleges in America.
- The admissions committees were impressed by Frank’s way of explaining how music and sports have contributed to his analytical thinking. They were further convinced about his analytical abilities when reading his high school project.
Marcus “The Niche Nerd”
- Marcus’ interest in mathematics and computers is clearly reflected in his choice of high school classes, where he focused on technical subjects.
- Marcus performed top of his class in math and physics. He made sure to study all courses relating to these fields that were available to him at his school, despite having to nag the principal about permission to take advanced physics classes with students from a different study track. With his extra classes, Marcus exceeded the required amount of high school credits.
Strengthening of personal profile
- The interest in mathematics made Marcus choose a summer course in London during his summer break from high school. The trip inspired him to to reflect on how mathematics has developed throughout history.
- Marcus chose to write his senior year highschool project about the history of mathematics. He turned to a local math professor for assistance and ordered advanced mathematics books online.
- Marcus also took part in mathematics competitions organised at his school. He won and thus qualified for the national level finals.
Choice of university and communicating the profile
- Marcus knew exactly what he wanted to study: Mathematics! His perfect grades, in-depth knowledge in the field from both school and independent studies contributed to his acceptance at both of his dream schools Cambridge and Imperial College.
How to strengthen your personal profile
As you can see above, these three students have built strong profiles using merits from both school and outside of school. Starting to think about what kinds of merits you want to have as early as possible is preferable. This way you can actively shape your personal profile. If you’re already in your last or second-last year of high school, you must focus on strengthening the profile that you’ve already acquired.
Below we give you some useful suggestions on how you can strengthen your profile by immersing yourself in your existing interests and by growing your list of merits. Some of these methods can be used fairly far along in high school, whereas some should be taken into account earlier on.
- Plan your choice of high school courses in accordance with the profile you wish to develop for your application (see strategic highschool decisions)
- Immerse yourself in your favourite subjects by reading books, magazines, blogs and websites that are not part of your course plan.
- Try getting an internship/trainee position related to your specific field of interest.
- Professors at universities are usually reachable and enjoy being approached by enthusiastic high school students. Perhaps this can help you to get an internship?
- Parents or family friends who are working at relevant companies or organizations.
- Many charity organizations rely on volunteers, and will be happy to receive your help.
- Get an extra job that helps you develop relevant skills (ex. Tourist guide, tutor, caretaker, salesperson)
- Try to find a mentor who can give you insight into an industry, contacts and suggestions on suitable literature, events and possibly even internships.
- Regard school projects as an opportunity to gain knowledge about the subject you aim to study at university.
- Find relevant competitions, camps, conferences and events relating to your interests that you can take part in. Examples are The Duke of Edinburgh Award, Young Enterprise and Rotary Youth Leadership Awards.
- Check out possibilities of exchange years/semesters or language learning trips in highschool to build an international profile early on. Check out organizations such as Rotary and EF.
Universities in both the UK and the US are looking for candidates who have found their specialization already. They prefer candidates with in-depth knowledge of one field over candidates with brief knowledge of ten different ones.
What was your profile’s strength in your application?
“A background filled with adequate experiences for the degree I chose. A few specific merits that are easily memorized by someone who reads 1000 applications per day.”
Henrik Hansen, Warwick ‘14
“My UCAS application was written in a personal and not-too-formal way. I tried be as relaxed as possible during the interviews not to come across as unprepared when asked questions that I didn’t know the answer to.”
Olga Petersén, Cambridge ‘12
“My motivation. I knew exactly why I wanted to be at NYU – I wanted to live the fast life, I wanted to be where fashion and advertising is constantly in focus and after my graduation I wanted to be part in this world!”
Jovana Obradovic, NYU ‘12
4.2 Personal profile: How to create a profile
Who are you and what do others see in you? Which subjects in school and activities have you focused on and achieved the most in? These items should make up the backbone of your personal profile.
A thoroughly designed personal profile is the basis of any successful application. Therefore it is important to carefully reflect on your profile and think of how it matches the academic programme and university that you wish to attend.
Think about your experiences and take some time to figure out what you wish to achieve. Constructing a personal profile solely based on your fantasies is a bad idea – admissions committees claim to easily be able to distinguish between a made up application and an authentic one.
Your personal profile contains two parts: its content and how to communicate it.
The contents of your profile
This part is all about reflection on who you are and what you’ve done.
- What are your values?
- What are your strengths and weaknesses?
- What are your interests?
- What experiences have shaped you?
- What knowledge and competence do you have?
- What are your goals?
Communicating your content
This part is about asking yourself how you are perceived. How do you communicate your profile through action?
- When do you speak, and what do you say?
- What vocabulary do you use? Are you a rambler, concise speaker or formal? How advanced are your formulations?
- What is your tone of voice? How is this affected by your mood?
- How is your body language? What does it say about you?
- How do you dress? What does your style reveal about you?
- What symbols are you associated with? What are their meanings?
- What does your Facebook profile say about you?
Examples of a thought-through personal profile, both in regards to content and communication
Politicians are always observed by media and the public. They must have a clear message based on experience, values and goals (contents of their profile), and communicate their message in a convincing way using image and sound (communication).
One clear example of the above is Barack Obama. The contents of Obama’s personal profile are his experiences (ex. Community organizer and senator of Illinois), values (ex. Equality, responsibility, justice) and goals (ex. Changing the US healthcare system, solve conflicts in the Middle East).
Obama communicates the contents in his personal profile through numerous channels. His choice of words is important, but factors such as tone of voice, body language, clothing and accessories play an important part in his success as a politician.
4.3 Personal profile: Your profile in the application
The same way as Obama has reflected on the contents and communication of his personal profile, you must think about your own profile when applying to college. This is followed by using the different parts of a college application to communicate different parts of your profile in the most efficient way.
Step 1: Contents of your personal profile
Start by thinking broadly about who you are and what has made you the person you are. Perhaps it is a specific experience, activity, place or perhaps your upbringing that has shaped you as a person. Ask yourself the questions in the previous chapter (How to create a profile) and discuss it with family and friends.
This is (and should be) a somewhat unstructured activity. A free flow of ideas and thoughts can be of great value at this stage, just make sure to take notes of any good ideas you may come up with. The goal at this stage should be to create a presentation or summary of yourself, without analyzing what you really stand for, what you want to achieve and some interesting stories about yourself. The structure will be discussed in the next step.
Step 2: The programmes’ and universities’ profiles
So far we’ve only discussed personal profiles. Now we’ll broaden the concept to include the profiles of organizations and academic programmes. How does Harvard differ from Stanford in terms of profile? What’s the profile of a philosophy degree, and how is it any different from physics? You must consider these very important questions when designing your profile and when choosing a university.
Universities and academic programmes have profiles that are based on values and goals, much like people. In the UK, people commonly say that “Oxford educates prime ministers, Cambridge educates Nobel Laureates”. What does this say about the different universities’ values and goals and what sorts of students do they want to attract?
What distinguishes the profiles of people and universities/programmes is how they are communicated. Universities and programmes communicate their profile through everything from architecture and leadership profiles, to websites, advertisements and articles in the media. Your job is to research the profiles of schools and programmes through these different channels. This way you’ll be able to know what the different schools are looking for.
Suggestions of how you can research university/programme profiles:
- Their websites! You’ll usually find more information on university websites than what you might think.
- Course catalogues, brochures and advertisements
- Other online-resources you can find (Google, YouTube, Facebook etc.)
- Talk to people! Preferably current or past students (ex. Study Advantage bloggers)
- Visit universities
- Email or call professors, admissions offices, or other representatives for the university that you’re interested in
- Read about famous people who studied the program before
- Look at statistics about what graduates of your specific programme are doing after graduation: which career path does the degree prepare you for?
The next step in your research about universities and academic programmes is to try and figure out the different committees’ admissions criterias. Based on their profiles, what type of students are they looking for? What type of background do these students have? What experiences and interests are valued? Which personal characteristics? Which career ambitions?
Step 3: Find the common grounds between your profile and the university/programme profiles
In this step we’ll try to match your personal profile with the profile of the school and programme that you’re interested in. These common denominators can look radically different. shared values of democracy and equality? Ambitions within a sport? Focus on analytical thinking? A specific academic interest? Social environment?
When you begin to find connections between the university’s- and your own profile, you’ve come a long way in developing a strong personal profile.
Now you need to highlight concrete details and stories that can be used to clearly illustrate that you are the right fit for the school and/or programme that you are interested in. These stories must be genuine and convincing. Perhaps it’s a specific characteristic that you possess which makes you the perfect candidate to take on the challenges of the specific programme (ex. you may be a skilled writer, making you a good fit for a journalism degree).
If you are having a hard time finding connections between the profiles, it might be a good idea to rethink and ask yourself whether the school and/or programme is the right choice for you. Perhaps you should look at applying for a different degree, or perhaps to a different university? It is common for people to go back and make changes to their list of target schools.
Step 4: Communicate your personal profile through the application
Having identified the connections between your profile and that of your target university and/or programme, there is only one thing missing in successfully applying your profile: how do you communicate your profile throughout your application in the best way possible? The application’s many different parts provides you with great opportunities to present your profile and its connection to the profiles of the university and the academic programme.
The communication can be divided into two main parts:
- Objective channels: your grades from high school, the courses you’ve taken in highschool and your results in different admissions tests
- Subjective channels: application letter, recommendation letters, work experience and free time activities as well as interview
Your personal profile is communicated in two different ways in the parts of your application in which you use your own words: through WHAT you choose to talk about (content) and HOW you say it (language).
Good to know when developing your Personal Profile
- Top universities in the UK and USA receive many thousand applicants from impressive and competitive candidates every year. Good grades and merits are the very minimum requirements for consideration of your application, so you must work hard on the content of the rest of your application. In order to stand out amongst the masses, you must also know how to communicate your content.
- You must try to find the connections between your personal profile and that of the specific school and programme of interest. This is not the same as creating a new personal profile for yourself based on what you believe the university is looking for. Admissions committees easily recognize a “fake” application when they see one. Remember that although universities are looking for a specific profile, no student will ever match that exact profile. Additionally, universities value diversity and appreciate profiles with discrepancies from the norm. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, as the university wants to see your individual qualities.
Example: Optimal applicant profile at Yale and Harvard
“The Yale type is very well rounded – an A student who’s a varsity athlete… A Harvard student is someone Harvard thinks is going to be famous someday.”
(from the article “The $28,995 Tutor”, http://nymag.com/nymetro/urban/education/features/4579/)