Careers

3 tips for building the perfect college application, from a CEO who went to Harvard for free

Ben Kaplan graduating from Harvard
Ben Kaplan graduating from Harvard

Right now, thousands of students around the world are painstakingly perfecting their college applications. Writing a flawless application may seem like an impossible task, but Ben Kaplan, CEO of PR Hacker and author of "How to Go to College Almost for Free," says anyone can write an application that perfectly captures who they are.

When Kaplan was a teenager, he mastered the art of application writing. He not only gained admission to Harvard, one of the most selective universities in the world, he also applied for and won 24 scholarships totaling $90,000 — enough to go to school for free.

He says the secret to a great college application is the same strategy his public relations company uses to make a story go viral on the internet: "I learned this from scholarships, but I do it now in our work at PR Hacker. At PR Hacker we are hired to make things go viral for people and our mantra is: 'simple, surprising and significant.'"

1. Keep it simple

College admissions officers read tens of thousands of applications every year. This means that your application may not be seen for more than a few minutes. In order to get your message across in this limited amount of time, your application needs to be simple, says Kaplan.

"I need to be able to size you up as a student in like 10 seconds," he says. "It's never the full depth of who you are as a person."

Admissions officers will try and pigeonhole you and categorize you, he says, so be sure to clearly explain what type of person you are as quickly and succinctly as possible.

"You have to communicate that effectively."

Ben Kaplan
Ben Kaplan

2. Be surprising

As admissions officers read thousands of applications, you will need to cut through the noise and make yourself stand out. Students will often present themselves as angelic do-gooders, but Kaplan says that every student brags about their love for community service.

"You have to break through the expectations in some way," says Kaplan. "Yes, you love community service — that's the expectation."

You need to show what makes you different.

"You have to break through that in a way that shows credibility, in a way that shows that you care about it," he says. "Something that breaks the pattern of what you expect."

For instance, if you love volunteering with Meals on Wheels, you will need to show what makes you different from the other 2 million volunteers.

3. Find significance

In order to prove how passionate you are about the things in your life, Kaplan says that students need to demonstrate how their activities, achievements and extracurriculars will help them achieve their future goals.

Your application should communicate "your significance in the world, a greater purpose, what your path is," he says. "You should be saying something important about your story. So that's why, when I look at an essay, it needs to be simple, surprising and significant."

"Being simple helps you resonate. Being surprising helps you be memorable. And showing significance embodies your application with a deeper purpose, and those are all emotional triggers," says Kaplan. "And here's the funny thing I learned later: That is the exact same thing we do to make a Meow Mix cat video go viral."

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