Profile Building: Creating Your Personal Brand For College Applications

My parents like to tell a story from when I was a child. Whenever we went out to the store or a relative’s house, they’d strap me into a car seat in the back. And as we drove down the street, I would see golden arches through the window and yell, “McDonald!” Then I’d proceed to cry if they didn’t stop to get me a milkshake.

I must’ve been three or four years old at the time. I could read, but not well. I wasn’t tall enough to see through the car window. Yet, whenever I saw those arches, it meant something to me — milkshakes, cheap plastic toys, a catchy jingle, and french fries.

That is branding.

A brand can be anything. A design, a name, a sound, or an emotion. In the case of McDonald’s, the golden arches are part of their brand, as did “I’m lovin’ it”. These separate their product from all the other fast food restaurants, recognisable to even kids.

Why is personal branding important?

In 2015, more than 200,000 high school seniors graduated with a 4.0 GPA. Nearly 3,000 students scored 2200+ on the SAT, and Harvard rejected 200 applicants with a perfect 2400 score. Swamped admissions staffers survey a field of 2 million applicants each year.

In a sea of sameness, the need to develop a strong point of difference to progress to the next round is non-negotiable.

What this all means to college-bound students is that personal branding is a must-have rather than a nice-to-have. Colleges are trying to understand “who is this person, and why would we want him or her to join this community?” In today’s college landscape and job market, there is no room for being another face in the crowd.

Personal branding is knowing what you stand for and how you communicate that to the world. Click To Tweet

So how should a college applicant stand out from the others? This beginner’s guide will take you through all the steps you need to take to create a unique personal brand. It covers as much as possible about the process of building a personal brand. Follow steps exactly, or use certain information and create your own steps for finding success.

And lastly, if you find this guide useful, please forward this page to a colleague or a student who may as well.

Understand Who You Are

1. Setting and Prioritising Your Values

Businesses create vision and mission statements. Similarly, creating a personal brand begins much the same way with a personal vision.

The foundation of personal branding rests on authenticity, which is why the first step in building a personal brand rests on setting your values. These are things that drive your life. They’re the core of your being, and you refer to them when making decisions.

For example, you may have the following set of values:

  • Family
  • Ambition
  • Community
  • Intelligence
  • Friends

These values define the things that are most important to me. When faced with a decision like accepting a new job offer, I’d ask myself what the best choice would be for my family, ambition, intelligence, friends, and community. Does this job offer mean to the community or family? Is it the right step to further my ambitions?

There are no limits to the values you can include. These are the things that are the most important to you.

After determining your values, you may realise that your values aren’t all created equal. What’s when you prioritise your values. Consider the example above, but prioritised:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Community
  • Ambition
  • Intelligence

There will be times in your life where you’ll be faced with decisions that put your values at odds. Using the new job example above, what if the job fit in with your ambition, intelligence, and community values, but means less time with friends and family?

Many of us know people who are wildly successful professionally, and yet they’re still unhappy because they didn’t realise how much they valued their family life. Conversely, there are several people with a fantastic family life, but are miserable professionally because they feel unfulfilled. Prioritise your values, and you’ll know how to best approach your personal brand.

2. Identifying Your Passions

Passions are things that excite and intrigue you, and things you enjoy doing with your time. Your passions may overlap with your values, but they are – for the most part – different. A key to creating a successful personal brand is knowing your passions and how you want to experience those passions in your professional and academic life.

For example, you may have the following professional passions:

  • writing
  • technology
  • gaming

And the following personal passions:

  • family
  • travel
  • fashion

These passions, along with your values, will provide a roadmap for your personal brand. This is who and where you want to be in three, five, or even ten years. In the example above, this person would probably be happy writing about gaming on technology websites, but their job would have to allow them the time to travel or spend time with family, as well as have a relaxed dress code.

3. Identifying Your Ideal Traits

There are a few different theories on personality traits, but one that we like at Cialfo is the Big Five Personality Traits (also known as the five factor model).

The Big Five traits are:

  • openness to experience
  • conscientiousness
  • extraversion
  • agreeableness
  • neuroticism

Each of these traits are measured on a scale, and there are really no right or wrong answers. Where you fall on the scale makes up your personality.

My five traits – I need to work on my conscientiousness and agreeableness!

Your personality will probably change slightly with time — mine certainly has as I work on the parts that I’m not a fan of (disorganisation and agreeableness, for me). If you want to change your personality, you can identify the ideal traits that will make up your personal brand. If you’re relatively closed off to new experiences, you can make it a point to be open to trying to new things if that’s the person you want to be in your personal brand.

Remember: there’s no right or wrong answers. You can change this at anytime in your life. A personal brand is the story you’re telling about yourself. Still, it’s important to know where you stand right now.

Understand Where You Want To Be

Now that you understand who you are, you can move into understanding where you want to be. For example, in the previous section you may have realised you’re passionate about good design, and that makes up a large part of who you are as a person. This understanding lays the foundation for the type of person you’d like to be.

1. Who Do You Admire?

A lot of people have role models. It may be a parent that set a good example for you, or someone you admire from afar in an industry you’d like to work in. You’ve been thinking about their careers as you built the vision for your own life.

Now it’s time to take those thoughts to a deeper level. List all of these people you’ve been thinking about in a spreadsheet. Next to their names, add descriptions and what they’re doing in their lives now, and include reasons why you admire that person.

After you’ve listed out the people you admire, take a deeper look. Many of us look at other people’s lives for the wrong reasons (like comparing ourselves to them and getting miserable that our life isn’t as awesome!). Remember: you’re looking at their highlight reel. It’s easy to focus on the positives, and forget that everyone has problems and frustrations just like you.

When you take a deeper look, you start to notice things about them that may not align with your personal brand vision. Maybe a role model is incredibly successful in their professional career, but they don’t have a family or struggle with personal time.

Gary Vaynerchuk claims to work 95 hours a week, but his goal is to own the New York Jets. He’s also fine, apparently, with not spending much time with his own family. Those are his priorities, and that’s okay. But if you neither want nor care about buying a sports team, you probably don’t need such a hectic workweek and would prefer to spend that time with your family instead.

After looking into all these role models, rank them based on your developing brand vision. Find the ones that closely resemble yours. You probably won’t find someone who perfectly fits your vision, but that’s okay. You’re not trying to copy them — only learn from them.

2. Learn From Your Role Models

Once you have a ranking of the people you admire and want to be like, dig deeper into those who rank the highest. At this point you’re going to investigate the steps they took to achieve their results. And along the way, you may discover their values and passions as well — both of which will be very useful if you’d like to work with them in the future.

For example, a person on your list may be the CEO of a very successful company. You admire the person they are now, but nobody achieves greatness overnight. It’s your task to identify the steps they took to get to their current place in life, and then make adjustments.

Become Who You Want To Be

Or at least, pretend really well!

In this section, we’re going to give you the exact tools you’ll need to develop your professional image. This is another step in building your brand vision and carrying out the early stages of building your personal brand for college applications and, later on, your professional life.

A digression on talent

There will always exist someone in the world more talented than you. In fact, there will always exist multiple someones more talented than you are.

They’re sexier. Smarter. Richer. More creative. More likeable, more charming, better-connected, and better-looking.

But there is one, singular thing you can do better than them:

You can outwork them.

Talented, attractive, lucky people are everywhere. Everywhere. They’re all over my Facebook feed, peppered through my communities and friend groups. They’re amazing at a lot of things, and frankly it sometimes annoys me just how good they are.

But very rarely is any one of them a consistent person. And that is why, eventually, they will fail. And that is why you will succeed.

The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. – Will Smith

People are generally more comfortable working with someone they can count on to bring the same level of commitment each day to the office. The trope of the brilliant but unpredictable genius works fantastic in Hollywood films, but can you imagine working with someone like that on a daily basis?

That’s why colleges look for consistency in grades and extra-curricular pursuits. Rare exceptions aside, a student who starts out strong academically and stays consistent through high school will likely be more academically successful than the student whose grades fluctuate with the semester. Similarly, the student who is consistently involved with one issue is preferred to the student who jumps between a variety of causes.

Conduct A Digital Audit

There’s you, the serious college applicant — and then there’s the other you, the one with the raunchy email address and voicemail greeting your friends find hilarious. Maybe you put up pictures from that awesome beach party on Facebook, or your Instagram includes photos of your drunken misadventures.

Admissions staffers, many of them fairly recent graduates themselves, often check out social media websites. This extends beyond the usual “Facebook and Twitter” — is your Snapchat locked down? What about that embarrassing Myspace account you had ten years ago?

Early this year, Harvard made the news when they rescinded admissions offers to at least 10 students for offensive Facebook memes. And these weren’t public posts, either — these memes were posted in a private Facebook group called “Harvard Memes for Horny Bourgeois Teens”.

There are Facebook groups like these for other institutions: the University of Pennsylvania’s “Official Unofficial Penn Squirrel Catching Club,” Cornell’s “Make Cornell Meme Again,” Dartmouth’s “Dartmouth Memes for Cold AF Teens,” Yale’s “Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens,” Princeton’s “Princeton Memes for Preppy AF Teens,” Brown’s “Brown Dank Stash of Memes for Unproductive Teens,” Columbia’s “Columbia Buy Sell Memes,” and the University of California, Berkeley’s “UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens.”

While it goes without saying that admissions staffers are likely monitoring groups centred around their institution, it’s an important lesson that your digital actions are never private no matter how tightly you think you’ve set your privacy settings.

To conduct a digital audit, run a Google search on your name. Go through the first five pages of Google results (not forgetting the ‘Images’ results tabs as well) and scrub anything potentially embarrassing or offensive.

Build Your Digital Presence

Social media profiles are hugely important in building a personal brand. There are a few that everybody should be active in regardless of their industry, like LinkedIn and Twitter, but there are also industry-specific networks. This means communities where people relevant to you are present on.

For example:

  • designers should have a portfolio on Behance or Dribbble
  • programmers should be contributing to a few projects on their Github
  • aspiring startup founders or employees should be active on AngelList
  • film and media artists should be uploading their work to Artstation
Personal branding assets for a designer.

We’ll cover more on digital assets and building credibility in another article, but for now know that signing up for a handful of key online communities is an important first step.

Professional Photos

It’s not too often that your casual photos will look professional enough to impress people. Even if you’re pretty good with your smartphone, a selfie isn’t going to be enough to represent your brand.

It’s worth the upfront investment to have a professional photographer set up a photoshoot and take a few headshots. Note that this does not mean you have to wear a suit — at least, not if that’s not who you’re planning to be. Students aiming for traditionally conservative fields like law or finance should wear a suit, but if your ideal career is in a creative or more relaxed industry, formal business attire is optional (and, in some cases like startup software development, is a con rather than a plus).

Professional photography can be expensive. Pay the money if you can afford it, or look around on deal websites like Groupon. If it’s out of your budget, find a photographer that will work on trade or at a discount. Write a few blog posts for them. Offer free design work. Clean their house if you have to.

Another less-talked about method of getting free head shots is to simply apply for a part-time job or volunteer position that you know includes professional photography for their employees. For example, Cialfo frequently holds photoshoots for our team, and many of us use it as our professional image. If you’re unsure about this, look at the company’s website or LinkedIn and check if several employees are using similar photos of themselves.

Quick Recap

By now, you should have established the foundations of your personal brand. We’ve covered:

  • your values
  • your traits
  • your passions

…and made some important first steps in:

  • auditing and cleaning up your online footprint
  • building a fresh and professional digital presence

In the next article, we’ll offer actionable tips on how to build up your online and offline assets: from creating a personal website to building credibility both indirectly (your social media and blog) and directly (networking events and volunteerism).

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