It can be confusing: Half of the advice you read urges you to stand out in your application, while the other half advises you to explain how you’ll fit in. So which is it? Should you stand out or fit in?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is BOTH. You need to show your distinction and demonstrate fit simultaneously.
Here are some tips to help you juggle the stand out/fit in dichotomy:
1) Highlight unique interests, hobbies, or activities. You can safely assume that there will be other applicants in your professional/social/economic/geographic group. Whether you’re an Indian IT male applying to b-school or a Long Island Jew applying to law school or an Exeter Prep student applying to an Ivy League college… you’re probably (okay, definitely) not alone. In these cases you’re going to need to highlight your individuality. You’ll need to prove to the adcom that while your profile lands you smack in the middle of their “Typical” file, you’re actually an incredibly distinct and unique person. For example, you play the harp professionally. You started your own moving company when you were 19 years old. You won the regional juggling competition six years in a row. Now you’ve got their attention.
2) Connect your “stand out” factor to your goals to create a coherent overall message. Distinguishing your personality through your unique interests is one way to stand out, but it’s not the only way, or even the most effective way. You should also distinguish yourself by expressing your unique goals. Maybe most psych majors who apply to med school go into psychiatry. Your motivation for becoming a doctor, however, wasn’t the psychology courses you took in college, but your summer job in an orthopedist surgeon’s office. You want to combine your passion in psychology with your interest in the human skeleton to become a geriatric orthopedist. Congratulations – you’re no longer the typical psych-major-turned-med-student!
3) Demonstrate fit for balance. For those who fit snugly into an overrepresented profile group, demonstrating fit should be a piece of cake – after all, so many of you are attracted to Top School X probably because it’s the best school for people like you to pursue their goals. Conversely, those who have no trouble distinguishing themselves (like, say, a coffee farmer from Kenya), may need to tug at their creative strings to make the “fit factor” happen. How do you convince the adcoms that you’re a good fit for their program? By explaining the ways in which you and the program are MFEO – how the program will help you achieve your goals and how you, in turn, will contribute to the class and to the school’s overall goals and missions.
4) Envision a mosaic. A good way to both demonstrate fit and distinguish yourself is to think of a mosaic. Each tile is distinct – with its own shape and color combination – yet when pieced together with the other tiles, becomes part of a large, beautiful, cohesive picture. You want the adcom readers to think that they’ve stumbled upon the missing tile in the mosaic that will become the next Top B-School, College, Law School, Med School, or Grad School Class: YOU. You in all your differentiating glory and unifying power. You who both stands out and fits in perfectly.