Application Advice: The Creative Fine Line

Earlier this month, Veritas Prep was quoted in a Forbes article about how applicants can navigate the business school waitlist. The salient points can be found here and the whole article gives rise to another interesting consideration that can be applied more generally to the admissions process: how far should candidates go to showcase their interest? There always seems to be a new crazy story about someone willing themselves into school and the idea of “being creative” seems to be gaining steam, so we decided to delve a little further into this trend.

Obviously, a key component of the application process is standing out from the crowd and calling attention to the things that make someone unique as a candidate. One way applicants can accomplish this is to be creative in their approach. But how creative should you be? Where is the fine line between “interesting” and “insane”? Let’s take a look at ways that you, as an applicant, can find the line and maximize your opportunity.

Strong creative writing is the obvious place to start, but you can expand beyond that notion in a number of ways. For instance, seeking out a letter of recommendation from an atypical source is often a way to be “creative” in the admissions process, without straying too far from the norm. An example from this past admissions season can be found in the form of an applicant who had spent the last three years working for his family’s recycling business – helping to transform a mom and pop shop into a growing corporation with multiple six-figure contracts. Due to the familial nature of the business, the applicant was unable to secure a traditional letter of recommendation from his current employer. His options were to go back to a previous job, go way back to a college professor, or take a small risk and reach out to a client of the business. He chose the latter, securing a salt-of-the-earth letter that screamed authenticity – and his candidacy benefited in the process.

Of course, with creativity comes risk. Whenever a candidate strays outside of the narrow confines of the application process, there is the inherent risk of inappropriateness. Using an optional essay to send “page one” of your autobiography is both creative and appropriate, but sending in a construction paper mobile coated in glitter and complete with photographs of you in a bathing suit is borderline creative (at best) and it is wildly inappropriate. A good rule of thumb is to consider whether your creativity is merely an extension of the existing form, or a complete departure from what the school requests. Applicants can take liberties within the sections of an application and get away with it, while preserving the potential reward of standing out. However, straying far beyond the designated application components is a great way to ensure the ire of an admissions officer.

Another important consideration is to examine the school in question. Many programs provide indicators as to their level of tolerance for creativity. The Stern School of Business at NYU features a well-known “Essay 3” that features tremendous flexibility and asks only for personal expression. That expression can come in the written word, a recording, a painting, a sculpture, you name it. (Although you should stop short of sending food or clothing.) The mere existence of this essay indicates that Stern prizes creativity and applicants can push the envelope knowing this fact. Anderson consultant Paul Lanzillotti notes that UCLA Anderson utilizes both a “family” essay as well as a 60-second audio essay, both of which give candidates an opportunity to be creative in the process. Yale Law School’s application process features the rather famous “Yale 250” which is a 250-word essay requiring great economy of writing, but opening the door to great creativity as well.

Finally, you want to be cognizant of trends, especially those that become overused. Applicants borrowing from Legally Blonde and sending in video essays to Harvard Law School probably did not fare too well in the years that followed that movie’s release. Likewise, there was a time not too long ago when sending in a haiku was all the rage on medical school applications. Now? You are just making the admissions committee’s job easier by moving yourself immediately into the “denied” pile. Injecting creativity into the admissions process by mirroring a notorious example is a little like running to a spot where lightening just struck and waiting for it to happen again. Remember: being creative is an attempt to show how unique you are as a candidate and how expansive your problem-solving skills are – mimicking someone else accomplishes neither goal.

Our advise is to put down the glitter and the construction paper, stow away the origami kit, and save your video camera for The Amazing Race. Real creativity is harder than that – it is finding unique strengths that blend with traditional application themes and articulating those combinations in ways that stand out within the application itself.