Standing Out from the Crowd

A great application makes a logical case for why you, why this project choice, why this university/program choice, significance of the work you want to do. Professionally impressive, with all the little strings tied up into a perfect bow. But that is not enough in itself. Below are some writing (and interviewing) techniques that help you stand out from the crowd. You want your application to be MEMORABLE

Work from your life

  • Draw on your personal life and experiences to find truthful and unique examples, anecdotes, feelings, and turning points that you can discuss with passion.  Honesty and sincerity will come through in your writing.

Be who you are

  • If you want to stand out, be who you are.  Don’t just say what you think the selection committee wants to hear. Answer outside the box.
  • Colorless neutrality and safe, cliché answers do not make you memorable. Don’t try to hide who you are if you want to be remembered.

Know what makes you different

  • Remember that yours is going to be one of hundreds of applications (or more!). All of these applications are going to be quite good, and each applicant is going to be academically strong, accomplished in extracurriculars, and highly ambitious with impressive potential in the field. So what sets you apart? Do you have an interesting background? Are you combining disparate fields in an interesting way? Have you made an exceptional or uncommon contribution to your community? Have you overcome a remarkable challenge?
  • Try to create opportunities for qualities or experiences that make you unusual as a person and/or student to come through in the application. What relevant anecdotes, accomplishments, or examples can demonstrate how/why you are distinctive, a great fit, and worthy of support?

Begin well, end well

  • Grab attention with your openings, and have a neatly phrased and memorable ending, too.

Tell stories!

  • Telling the story of a pertinent personal experience is a great way to start an essay or an interview question response.  It helps you come up with a unique answer with memorable, powerful images and ideas, and it is a great way to catch the reviewers’ attention.
  • Relevant stories, images, metaphors, analogies, epiphanies, feelings — all of these can be good. They give your answers power and impact.

Tell the truth, then tell the moral of the story

  • It can be an effective technique to recount a personal story that does not necessarily show you in the best light IF you use it as a springboard into showing what you have learned or how an experience changed your direction and goals.
  • (But use this device only once within an application.)


It is hard to achieve the perfect blend of personal, professional, and compelling in your personal statement or statement of purpose essays.

  • Avoid clichéd writing choices, vague platitudes, "deep" or "cute" quotations, early childhood stories, etc. The personal must also be highly relevant to your career goals and your fit for this specific award; creative choices must also be informative in building your case. 
  • Read "Helping Students to Tell Their Stories" and "Leave Dr. Seuss Out of It" for a better understanding and examples.