If you consider yourself an achiever, chances are you’re doing everything you can to stand out to your top-choice college or university.

You want to put your best foot forward, but you end up studying until midnight or feeling totally overwhelmed. It’s tough to keep up with all of the expectations: having a full list of impressive extracurriculars, getting great grades, and striving for perfect test scores.

And even with checking all of these boxes, there’s no guarantee that it will help you stand out. After all, your application is going to end up sitting in a pile along with other high-achieving students who’ve followed a similar formula.

So how do you get noticed in this competitive environment? By uncovering your unique set of strengths. If you can clearly communicate on your applications, “This is what I’m bringing to your campus that’s different,” it shows the college admissions officers the leadership and self-awareness they’re looking for.

In my program, The Dream School Project, we call your unique set of strengths your Distinguishing Factor. It may take some time to identify this, but having a deep understanding of your gifts and the value they bring really does give you the ability to differentiate yourself. And you’re shifting your focus away from the stress and into your personal power.

A student named Brian came to me after getting deferred from Cornell, so I helped him take a deeper look at his best qualities and we reworked his application to reflect these strengths. When the results came back, he got accepted not just to Cornell, but also to MIT!

Brian had to really see his greatest strengths in order for them to show through in his application, and that’s what got him into these schools– not flawless grades and test scores. It came down to fully understanding his gifts.

So how can you figure this out for yourself? There are two important steps: asking yourself critical questions and getting input from the people around you.

Explore these exercises to reveal your competitive advantage:


1. Self-Reflection

You know yourself better than anyone else, so it’s important to take time to get specific about your gifts and interests. First, take 10 minutes to list off as many of your best qualities, strengths, perspectives, experiences, and skills you can think of. Don’t bother filtering yourself; just keep your pen moving so you can collect as many items as possible.
Next, use these guiding questions to dig deeper:

  • What types of activities put you in “the zone” and the time goes away?
  • What do you frequently find yourself helping your friends or family members with?
  • What are you obsessed with learning more about?
  • What do other people find boring that you love?
  • What are some challenges that you’ve overcome and in what ways did you grow from them?

Getting clearer on the gifts you see in yourself will help you determine your Distinguishing Factor and notice more opportunities to put your strengths into action.


2. Input from Others

There are some qualities that we will never notice on our own because we may just assume it’s the norm. That’s why it’s important to get the perspective of others.
First, make a list of the compliments you’ve received. Think of at least three, and try to pay attention to any you’ve gotten more than once. This will give you valuable insight about what stands out to the people around you.
Next, reach out to the three people who know you best. These can be friends, parents, relatives, teachers, tutors, or anyone else who you have a close relationship to.

Ask them these questions:

  • What three words best describe me?
  • What do you think lights me up?
  • What am I really good at?

This combination of looking internally and consulting others will give you helpful information to hone your competitive advantage and get a deeper understanding of your natural talents. It’s great to sit down and take half an hour to get clear on this, but it doesn’t need to stop there! I encourage you to add to this list as new ideas pop into your head. Again, understanding your unique set of strengths is one of the most powerful things you can do both for getting into your Dream School and being your best self.

By getting really clear on your Distinguishing Factor, you’re doing what it takes to stand out and to move forward with confidence.