The Futility of “Standing Out” on College Applications

Josh Stephens
5 min readSep 24, 2022

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Trying too hard to “stand out” can backfire. In fact, it usually does. Image credit: Localpups via Flickr.

During college application season, I think of my one of my favorite Andy Warhol quotes: “If everybody’s not a beauty, then nobody is.”

I don’t know of a college that evaluates applicants’ beauty as such. But, if you substitute “unique” for “beautiful,” you can unpack one of the biggest, and most toxic, half-truths about college applications.

In the wake of the pandemic, when so many high school students’ lives were constrained and opportunities limited, one of the mantras I hear from students is that they feel their application essays need to make them convey their “unique” qualities or that they must “stand out.”

Here’s why that advice is unhelpful, nonsensical, and, nothing short of anxiety-provoking.

Let’s kill off “uniqueness” right away.

It’s a big world out there. All 7.5 billion humans on this planet lay claim to uniqueness. Sure, some people might have similar resumes: similar classes, similar family backgrounds, similar activities, and what-have-you. But each of them have their own contexts, relationships, emotions, ideas, and, most importantly, specific life experiences. Ideally, everyone on this planet can find happiness and fulfillment — each in their own way.

In the subset of incredibly fortunate people who get to apply to selective colleges, we have maybe 500,000 applicants per year. That’s a lot of people. The number of truly unique accomplishments, personal qualities, and goals is roughly zero. Uniqueness is a mathematical impossibility.

It’s also not necessarily a good thing. Mohandas Gandhi and Marie Curie were unique. So were Pol Pot and Josef Stalin. So is Lady Gaga, Pee-Wee Herman, Boris Johnson, Elizabeth Holmes, Bashar al-Assad, AOC, MBS, TFG, and all seven members of BTS. The point is, “uniqueness,” if it exists at all, is neither inherently good nor bad.

As for “standing out,” that’s inherently comparative and competitive. It suggests an arms race in which applicants clamber over each other to emerge on top. That’s not a healthy attitude. It turns friends into rivals, and it trivializes a process that should be based on thoughtfulness and reflection.

And what are applicants comparing themselves to? You can only stand out if you know what everyone else looks like. And that’s impossible. Selective colleges receive anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 applicants. A given applicant might know maybe 20 of them. There’s no way to know about the other 9,980 or 99,980. And there’s no need to.

Colleges do not admit just one applicant. This isn’t a footrace or a tennis tournament that crowns a single winner. If anything, it’s the preliminary round of a golf tournament. Not everyone makes the cut. But plenty do. And you make it whether you shoot one stroke under the cutoff score or ten. You can bet that the 1,000 or 10,000 applicants admitted to any given college have plenty in common, just as plenty of golfers are going to have identical scores — each arriving at their score through different combinations of drives and putts, birdies and bogies.

It’s especially ironic that the advice to “stand out” often comes from college representatives who visit high schools and conduct information sessions. If a rep is letting an entire roomful of prospective applicants in on their secret, how useful can that advice possibly be?

Even if standing out is good, it’s only as good as it is honest. Sometimes, the students who, by any objective measure, do stand out are often the most worried about standing out. They feel that they need to glitz up their essays.

The quest to “stand out” too often leads to exaggeration, contrivance, insincerity, and apprehension. It manifests itself in cutesy anecdotes, transparent exaggerations, and meaningless assertions. In less delicate terms: it leads to BS’ing. Bragging, exaggerating, false modesty, and melodrama are among the many crutches that can undermine an essay. They obscure actual accomplishments and genuinely admirable virtues.

People, like colleges, embody multiple attributes. Those attributes can include a vast array of virtues and an infinite number of ways to illustrate them. Sure, an applicant can “stand out.” But an applicant can also be thoughtful, smart, outspoken, ethical, funny, mature, perceptive, self-aware, compassionate, sincere, humble, empathetic, studious, talented, eloquent…. and on and on and on. These attributes, presented precisely, honestly, and in genuine combinations, result in applications of which students can be proud.

Think about your friends. Do you hang out with them because they “stand out”? Or do you hang out with them because of common experiences, complementary interests, and ineffable personal qualities? In many cases, colleges admit students for the same reason that you want to hang out with your friends.

So, what’s the alternative to worrying about how you compare to 40,000 random high school kids whom you don’t know? Worry about one kid whom you know very well — yourself. But don’t “worry.” Celebrate. Reflect. Meditate. Think. Identify accomplishments you’re proud of. Tell stories and describe relationships that are important to you. Share ideas and observations that intrigue and excite you.

Every topic has already been written about — a thousand times over. So, you can’t worry about “standing out” with a topic. Whatever topics you choose, if you rely on details and interrogate yourself to articulate your specific experiences, goals, and ideas, then essays will naturally reflect you — at the same time that other applicants essays will reflect them. Try to infuse your essays with detail and nuance that belong to you and you only. The more fired up you are about your essays, the more “personal” they will become.

You can’t control whether you stand out. You can control whether you stand up. Stand up for the things you know to be good about you. Stand up for your own ambitions. Stand up for major accomplishments and memorable moments. You may not be able to stand tall enough for some colleges. And that’s OK. You should always try to stand tall enough for yourself.

Andy Warhol elevated superficiality to an art form. It worked for him. But, college applicants should not follow his lead. Whatever you write about, and wherever you go to college, just remember: You are unique, and you are beautiful. Andy Warhol thinks so, I think so, and you should too.

About Josh: Veteran educator Josh Stephens has advised students on college applications for over a decade. His students regularly gain admission to the most selective colleges in the United States. Admissions in the 2020 and 2021 application seasons include, for different students, Caltech, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, all campuses of the University of California, and Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and all five other colleges of the Ivy League.

For more insight into college application essays, please enjoy the following blogs.

College Essays and the Misuse of ‘Voice’

How College Applicants Can Go Beyond ‘Show Don’t Tell’

Ask, Memory: Interrogation and the College Essay

What Engineers Can Learn from Authors

To inquire about application essay guidance, please email josh@joshrstephens.net.

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Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.