Aim to Be Competitive and Compelling

Summer is often a time when college students seek opportunities to complement their coursework and strengthen their resumes. Some will participate in internships, research, or employment, while others may volunteer. Regardless of whether a student aspires to go to professional school (e.g., medical, dental, or vet), graduate school (e.g., MS, MA, MFA or PhD) or into industry; engaging in structured, non-academic experiences can  significantly enhance students’ undergraduate experiences. These opportunities can be helpful in clarifying students’ interests, values, and goals. Gaining “real-world” experiences can also increase self-awareness, help students develop new skills, and facilitate professional connections. Simply put, they can be transformative. Along with a student’s coursework, these experiences can position them to be more competitive for their post-graduate ambitions. In this post, I am challenging students to go beyond only thinking about what they do and also reflect on how and why they choose their experiences and who they become as a result. I believe doing so helps students become both competitive and compelling for their future goals. 

In order to be competitive, generally, individuals must meet minimum requirements and demonstrate that they can clearly do the job or be successful in a program. Compelling candidates “evoke interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.” People have a “good feeling” about them or feel moved by their experiences and the way they live their life. “What” a student did and the skills they developed is the means by which they demonstrate their competitiveness. Whether or not someone is a compelling candidate is most often illustrated by “how” they engaged in their previous pursuits and the depth of their reflection about those experiences. It’s more about “who” they are as a person. 

To illustrate this, students may want to revisit their college admissions process (sorry!). Things like the strength of high school, coursework, GPA, test scores, extracurricular activities, leadership positions, employment, etc. showed what a student had accomplished and helped colleges determine which students were competitive for admission. Students’ essays, letters of recommendation, family background, and interview (if applicable) communicated who students were as people and how they lived their lives. This information likely helped institutions differentiate among all of the competitive applicants (which likely exceeded the number of admission slots) and identify those who were compelling. Applicants that were perceived as compelling likely revealed that they had personal characteristics,  life experiences, and the ability to reflect on those experiences that gave the admissions committees confidence that the students would add value to the campus community and enrich the educational experience for everyone. In other words, the committees found them to be desirable. As a result, those students who were both competitive and compelling were likely offered admission over those who were deemed to be competitive only. And, I suspect there were some students, who may not have been as competitive but who were very compelling, were offered admission over those who were only competitive.

So, as students move through their undergraduate experience and prepare for their careers I encourage them to be intentional about becoming both competitive and compelling. Rather than focusing only on what they do, I encourage students to also invest in thinking about why they do things,  how they do things (in terms of their thought process, motivators, etc.), and who they are (as well as the type of person they want to become). Here are concrete steps to help students be more intentional about becoming a compelling applicant, regardless of their future aspirations:

  • Pursue an undergraduate major that is of genuine interest. Follow your intellectual curiosity. A student’s explanation for why they chose their major can reveal valuable information about who they are and what motivates them. And, the reality is that most majors will have 1 or 2 required courses that won’t be the most exciting or engaging for particular students. But, by choosing a major that they want to do rather than feel they should do, students will be more likely to enjoy (and increase the likelihood they will perform better in) the majority of the courses they complete for their major. A note about being “pre-health/pre-med:” students do not have to major in biology. Yes, there is a lot of natural overlap between the requirements for the biology major and the prerequisite coursework for medical school. And, yet students will have a much more fulfilling experience and likely perform better if they select a major that excites them from start to finish. With careful planning, students can major in almost anything and still complete the necessary prerequisite coursework for medical/dental/vet school before they graduate.
  • Focus on building skills and learning for learning’s sake.  Resist the urge to accumulate a bunch of or “as many as possible” academic credentials (i.e., double majors, multiple minors, several curriculum-based certificates, like leadership, entrepreneurship, etc.). If a student’s natural curiosity or career ambition moves them to learn a new skill or delve into a certain subject, enroll in courses towards that end. If by doing so, it leads to a double major, a minor, or another credential-great! But don’t let earning the credential drive motivation. I discourage students from pursuing something only because they feel they “should,” think “more is better,” or believe it will impress. Most graduate programs and employers are less interested in what students majored or minored in or how many credentials students have accumulated. Rather, they care about what a student knows, why they chose their major or minor(s), and what motivated them to invest their time in the way that they did. Students’ coursework is the what and will help determine if they are competitive for an opportunity, but the why and how they did what they did will determine whether or not they are a compelling candidate.
  • Resist “box checking” or wondering how much is”enough.” Too many students think there is a magic number of accomplishments, hours, or experiences that will lead them to being selected for a job or admitted to a program. Sure, having a breadth and depth of experiences will help a student meet a baseline standard for being competitive. Regardless, moving from simply  participating in an experience to engaging, processing, and being able to talk about the impact of one’s experiences is an important shift. It will help move a student from competitive to compelling. Rather than being impressed by the quantity of experiences, once again people are more likely to be interested in why students did what they did and how those experiences impacted them. They will want to understand how those experiences informed their decision to apply to the current opportunity and have prepared them to excel. 
  • Commit to reflecting on undergraduate experiences in and out of the classroom. Do this in “real-time,” on a frequent regular basis (perhaps after each shift or at minimum each week). Do it while things are fresh. Students should spend time processing and writing down their thoughts and reactions to situations and interactions. Focus not on actions and accomplishments, but the motivation behind what was done, and the how and why they did those things. Revisit specific interactions, recall feelings, interpersonal skills used, challenges and take-aways. What were the highs, lows, and what were the learning opportunities. This type of reflection increases the likelihood of experiences having a deeper impact and students having more profound learning. Both of these will be helpful when interviewing for future opportunities and being able to present as a compelling candidate.
  • Develop and cultivate relationships with future references early in your undergraduate experience. Get to know a diverse group of people who will be able to write not only good but strong letters of recommendation, including specific examples that illustrate strengths, competence, and character. These people should be able to go beyond reiterating a list of accomplishments and be able to write in-depth about a student’s motivations, values, and goals. They should be eager to give a highly specific, thoughtful verbal reference, as well. Their input will confirm a student is not only competent and competitive, but more importantly convey unique information that will separate a student from the pack and convey that they are a compelling candidate.

Doing well in courses and on entrance exams, as well as pursuing academic and non-academic experiences are often points of emphasis for a “successful” undergraduate experience. With strong performances, they usually position a student to be competitive for post-graduate opportunities.  In order to separate oneself, it is often helpful to also be compelling. Students present as such when they are able to illustrate their motivations, character, and interpersonal skills. Being thoughtful and authentic about their undergraduate journey, committed to processing and reflecting on their experiences, and deliberate in developing strong relationships with mentors will help competitive students also be compelling. As a result, they will be better positioned to achieve their post-graduate goals and maximize their ROI.

What do you think helps students separate themselves from others with whom they are competing for post-graduate opportunities? What do you think makes a job or graduate student candidate compelling? How do you suggest a student go about becoming both competitive and compelling?


Beth A. Howland is a higher education consultant and college student success coach based in Ithaca, NY. She is the founder of College Navigators, LLC. Check out Beth’s previous posts about college student success.

One thought on “Aim to Be Competitive and Compelling

  1. Beth, This is a great post that really got me thinking. Will be helpful in my work with clients who have children preparing to head off to college over the next couple of years. Great piece! Tee

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