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Why students should develop their personal brand as they apply to university 

Our guide to helping students perfect their personal brands - and why it's so helpful for university applications

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Your student’s academic record is outstanding, their personal statement highlights their interest in the course and its wider application, their references are glowing, and their essays show their strengths and how they overcome weakness. They’re good to go. But what does your student’s digital profile say about them? 

For millennial and Generation Z students, social media will be second nature for connecting with friends and family across the world. But how many young people leverage the power of an online presence to intentionally create a personal brand? We’re here to help you get your students to understand how they can build and make the most of their personal brand for university applications

When applying to university, students don’t just need to consider their paper application and how they come across at interview. In a competitive market for the best universities and study programmes, a personal brand can strengthen an application and also lay the foundation for future employment opportunities.

We’ve written before about the importance of a digital personal brand in a changing work environment, in Lucy’s article Preparing Today’s Teenagers for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With employers increasingly looking for a combination of hard technical skills and soft communication skills, students are advised to start thinking about their personal brand as early as 14 or 15 years old.    

What is personal branding?

Professional services provider PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) defines personal branding as “what you’re known for and how people experience you. It’s about bringing who you are to what you do and how you do it.”

When students build their unique brands, they’re not only marketing their skills, achievements, and strengths, but also their personality, values, and passions. Their brand is conveyed in person – by appearance, communication style, and behaviour; on paper – through the application process; and online – through social media, blogging platforms, and discussion forums. The way students are perceived online is referred to as digital personal brand.  

Why is digital personal branding important in the university admissions process?

It’s well known that employers check online profiles of potential employees as part of the hiring process. But how widespread is this practice in the university admissions process?

A Kaplan Test Prep survey of 350 US college admissions officers found that while fewer admissions officers are checking applicants’ social media profiles this year compared to previously, a greater number of officers who do check social media say it influences their view, both positively and negatively.    

Yariv Alpher, executive director of research at Kaplan Test Prep, says “social media can provide a more authentic and holistic view of applicants beyond the polished applications”. 

With 35% of admissions officers turning to social media, according to the survey, it’s important to create an intentional online identity. The lack of an online presence can create suspicion, but an unintentional online identity can lead to wrong assumptions.

Intentionally creating a digital personal brand reduces the risk of misinformation

study published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education considered the impact of not having an online identity, or not controlling it. “As digital communications become more prevalent, absence of an online presence could potentially send an unintended negative message that the individual is ill-equipped for digital communications. Future education efforts should not only focus on e-professionalism, but also stress the value of controlling one’s personal digital brand.”  

Another study, published in the Canadian Medical Education Journal, looked at whether social media is used in undergraduate admissions in Canada. Although the medical colleges that took part recognised the potential unfairness and unreliability of using social media in decision-making, especially with the lack of guidelines, it was not used as primary screening for applicants, only to follow up on worrisome behaviour indicated in the application or interview.

The study highlights participants’ reservations about social media profiles, including the lack of transparency in their use in the admissions process. But until there are clear guidelines, creating an intentional personal brand seems wise given the mixed responses to online profile use.

Personal branding shows communication skills, personality, and passion  

In various sectors, such as science and health, professionals need to communicate effectively with the public, whether informing, educating, campaigning, or fundraising. Students demonstrating public communication skills through blogging and social media have an advantage.

For art and design students, websites showcasing art, photographic, or design work can provide evidence of a long-standing passion, as well as talent. Travel enthusiasts can write a travel blog, foodies can post favourite recipes and nutrition guides, and naturalists can write a nature diary. Writers can share their short stories, poems, or plays.

How to build an authentic and unique personal brand  

Thinking about personal branding can help students work out career aspirations, matching who they are to what course or career best suits their personality and talents. While guidance from parents, peers, and teachers is invaluable, the personal branding process makes sure students are in control and find the right study programme and university.    

PricewaterhouseCoopers provides a personal branding process that teachers can ask students to follow, using self-analysis, and then apply the results to university choices.

PwC suggests you start by sending the electronic Personal Impact Survey to friends, family, teachers, mentors, and employers, before completing the Personal Branding Workbook that guides you to:

  • Clarify your strengths, communicate them via your online profile and capitalise through extra-curricular activities, committees, voluntary work.
  • Identify your values and seek activities and interests that align with them.
  • Pursue your passions to engage, enthuse and inspire those around you.
  • Define your purpose for a fulfilling life. 

Reflecting a personal brand in personal statements and admissions essays

Having established their personal brand, students will be set to incorporate their values, strengths, passions, and purpose in personal statements and essays. While they can learn from past successful applicants to see how they inject their brand into statements and essays, it’s each student’s unique offer to a university, faculty, and programme that’s crucial.

Universities are businesses looking for increased financial support, higher placement in university rankings, and greater positive publicity, so encourage students to show them the benefits of their brand. They want to know what a student can offer as a well-rounded person, how they will flourish in their community, and what difference they can make to the wider world.

“We strive to understand each applicant as a potential Penn classmate, leader, roommate, and citizen. We look beyond GPAs and test scores to capture the intangible qualities each candidate will bring to our campus community… Let us hear your authentic voice. Tell us your story.” – University of Pennsylvania.  

While it isn’t yet standard practise for universities to look at online profiles in the admissions process, if you want the best chance of securing a place at your dream university, leave nothing to chance. You don’t want to labour over paper applications and prepare meticulously for interviews, only to find a Google search on your name throws up images and comments long since forgotten.

Building a personal brand is a journey. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Angela Merkel, and Usain Bolt have all built authentic, unique, and consistent personal brands over time. You may change direction but keeping your values, strengths and mission in mind, every step takes you towards a university course and career that’s right for you. In the words of University of Pennsylvania founder Benjamin Franklin: “What you seem to be, be really.” Above all, enjoy the journey.

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