Finding a way to connect your academics, extracurriculars, and interests -- while also painting a true picture of who you are -- is a challenge for all students participating in the college application process. The key is to tell a cohesive story across the application via the college essay and supplements, transcript, and resume (clubs, volunteer activities, extracurriculars, and summer plans). This is where “threading a theme’”comes in. We all have many interests, and students are often encouraged to be “well-rounded” by taking many courses and participating in several different extracurricular activities. Our days are full of things we both like and dislike doing. But what do you truly “nerd out" about? When it comes to creating a theme in your college application, you want to find that passion and carry it through to all parts of the application. By threading in a strong theme, you’ll be sure to make your application stand out from the crowd!
What is a theme for a college application?
A college application theme is a consistent thread that reveals something about your core goals, interests, or personality. It can be anything, but more often than not it’s a subject or activity that you are deeply passionate about. However, in order to make it a true college application theme, it needs to appear in multiple parts of the application package. Let’s say your theme is the fact that you are passionate about neuroscience, then this will be reflected in at least three parts of your application. You may write your personal statement about neuroscience, have a rigorous course load of STEM classes on your transcript, and highlight your experience interning in a research lab in the extracurricular section of the common app.
Why are application themes important?
For one, exploring something deeply will help you grow as a person, build personal and professional connections, and find joy through learning.
But having a strong theme is also a sure-fire way to give the college admissions officers a clear picture of who you are, what you bring to the table, and how you would take advantage of that college’s offering to develop your passions further. Remember, college admissions offices look at thousands of applications every year, so you really want to find a way to stand out. College admissions officers are also looking to build a successful cohort of varied backgrounds and knowledge bases, a diverse and dynamic student body that will go on to make their alma mater proud. By threading a strong them throughout your application, you’ll make it easy for them to see how you would fit into the class they are building.
What’s more, if you truly can stay up all night doing this one thing (or several things), your enthusiasm will come through in your treatment of the “theme.” College essay readers are always on the lookout for genuine interest, curiosity, and enthusiasm!
Tips from experts on how to create a college application theme + examples
“One student I had did very well academically and wanted to apply to very competitive business programs. Searching for threads in his interests, the student noted he particularly wanted to go into impact investing, which is a way to invest in innovative products and markets to create a big impact socially. The student and I realized his ‘nerd out’ was researching companies that intersected business and social justice. He continued to research more on the subject and was able to put it into practice when he was accepted in a business-focused summer program offered at Georgetown on social entrepreneurship. For his final project in the course, he designed a model for a restaurant that was socially impactful. He knew a little about restaurants from working at a Panda Express making rice bowls and leveraged that in his project. For his personal essay, he discussed his passion, the model he created, the summer program, his part-time job, and his future endeavors. Admissions officers loved his story and he was incredibly successful in the application process.”
-Justin, College Admissions Coach
“I once worked with a student who had a severe food allergy, and his theme was living with this life-threatening condition. Throughout his college search, he was really looking to attend a university that was especially cautious about food allergies. With enormous humor, he wrote his college essay about his experience gaining confidence at and thriving in school despite having an atypical experience. The main subject of his college essay, though, was his close relationship with school nurses, with whom he ate lunch every day. He landed at Colorado College, who could ensure that he would be safe and has done incredibly well there.”
-Michelle, College Admissions Coach
“Another student applied ED to the Math Education department of Boston University. At IVY’s College Essay Bootcamp, I learned she had a strong interest in social justice and played the role of the leader and organizer in her high school. We looked at how that strong passion dovetailed with her love of math and teaching. She began to do some important volunteer work, making challenging math ideas fun and accessible to under-resourced students who weren’t previously encouraged in math. Her main essay highlighted the origin story of her passion for social justice. It all started with snowball fights on snow days in elementary school. While throwing snowballs, the kids would swap stories about racist interactions with teachers and police. This laid the groundwork for her current activism. Her supplements and resume highlighted tutoring work with middle and elementary school students in her neighborhood, echoing her strong passion for lifting up her fellow minorities. Needless to say, she was admitted early-decision to the program of her choice and couldn’t have been happier.”
-Justin, College Admissions Coach
Creating a College Application Theme: Conclusions
While college applications can be tedious to fill out, linking what you think you want to study in college to specific actions you’re taking now to explore your passions is a great way to simplify the process. In other words: narrow your focus. Instead of trying to jam all of your achievements into the personal statement, stick with your theme. You can then use the supplemental essay to discuss other skills that don’t make it the personal statement. This makes it much easier for the admissions officers to get a clear sense of who YOU are.
If you’re struggling to identify a theme for your application, IVY is here to help! Work with one of expert admissions coaches, or enroll in our College Essay Bootcamp. We guarantee you’ll end up with a college essay and application package that’ll WOW the admissions office!