The Role of Resumes in College Applications

Résumés aren’t always required as part of applications to colleges and universities, but when they are, they can play an important role in the intense competition for admission to top-tier schools. Creating an effective résumé enables you to present your best self to the admissions committee and allows you to highlight your most noteworthy extracurricular accomplishments.

One of the frustrations that students have with both the Common and Coalition Applications is the limited space to describe extracurricular activities; one of the most important subjective factors in admissions. In the Activities Section of the Common App, there’s space for you to describe 10 activities but you must do so in 50 characters each. You may have enough space to give adequate information about your time commitment for an activity, but you may have too few characters to adequately describe your role and any leadership positions. This causes two obvious problems: The Activities Section’s limited format isn’t suitable for students who want to describe their progression within an organization, which is something that colleges value. It also constrains students who need to describe extracurricular activities that are less orthodox than, say, Captain of the Debate Team, because, in addition to the space limitation, the section doesn’t let you name the activity, instead forcing you to select from pre-determined categories.

Whether you have an opportunity to submit a separate résumé or a résumé as a stand-alone addendum to the Activities Section will vary by school. For example, Princeton doesn’t consider any non-required documents such as résumés that are submitted with applications, but Dartmouth does. Penn takes a different approach, as stated in their admissions material; “You are required to complete the Activities Section of the application. If an activity needs to be explained in greater detail, you may include an expanded explanation or résumé.”

You should avoid taking shortcuts in developing your résumé. Don’t use an online template that inhibits your flexibility to present information in the manner that you prefer. Although the opportunity to use an unlimited number of characters in a free-standing résumé is tempting, IvySelect advises that you keep your résumé as short as possible while effectively drawing attention to your significant extracurricular accomplishments. In fact, if the Activities Section of the Common App is sufficient to your needs, submitting a résumé can actually hurt you by overburdening application reviewers. Résumés are a select representation of your activities, not a dumping ground for everything you’ve ever done. 

At IvySelect, we advise our students to avoid excessive bragging in their résumés. Among our culture’s social norms is the assumption that a person should be modest. If a person isn’t modest, it upsets the expectations of others. Impression management, an art practiced by successful applicants to elite colleges, is all about subtly leading others to view you favorably. If an admissions officer thinks you’re trying too hard, they may be turned off — the exact opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Opportunities to brag present themselves in the Activities Section and on résumés. Below are tips to avoid excessive bragging while remaining upbeat about your qualifications for admission:

  • Come across as likable. An unlikable student will have a difficult time gaining admission to highly selective colleges no matter how good their academic record may be. The admissions committee has many other applicants who are equally well qualified but may seem more likely than you to fit in with their other students.
  • Let others brag about you. Remember that your teachers and others who are writing letters of recommendation can sing your praises while you remain modest. Make sure they do.
  • Describe what you did, not what you are. Which sounds better, “I’m a great humanitarian” or “I set up and managed a food bank in my church’s basement after a hurricane and it remains in operation today”? One of the problems caused by bragging is the question of whether something you say about yourself can be verified by your audience. How do they know that you’re telling the truth when you claim to have a certain commendable characteristic? If you make such a claim but don’t provide an outcome as evidence, they must rely on your word alone. When bragging is based on your self-report without verifiable evidence, you may not be believed.
  • Share the glory. For example, in the above reference to a food bank, it’s recommended that you add something like, “…with the cooperation and assistance of other caring people in the congregation”.
  • Be kind. Never say anything negative about another person or organization. The school will prefer not to have highly judgmental people in their student body. There are other ways to convey an idea without disparagement.
  • Confidence. You want to come across as confident of yourself and your accomplishments, but it’s also important to avoid preening.

Your objective is to maximize the chance of being accepted to top institutions, and your résumé is among the ways to make a positive impression on a school’s admissions office. IvySelect is an experienced college admissions consulting firm specializing in guiding high achieving student to admission to Ivy League and other top-tier schools, As such, we have the expertise to guide you in preparing an excellent résumé that suits your unique profile and the expectations of the schools to which you’re applying.

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