How To Find Your Organizing Principle (Even Without A Helpful Giraffe)

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Last week I explained to you why you need an Organizing Principle. In my experience (which is substantial!), it’s perhaps the most-overlooked aspect of an application package, and often separates an acceptance from a place on the wait list…or even a rejection.

To reiterate, I define an Organizing Principle as the common motivation, philosophy, or thought process that threads together ALL (or almost all) of your (probably) scattered activities and interests, thus making you appear like the authentic, real human being you actually are—and not a fake, grubbing student trying only to “look good” to your dream school’s admissions committee. 

The reason that finding your Organizing Principle can be so elusive is that we’re looking for qualities that are second nature to you—that’s how you know they’re authentic. Often, though, the qualities that are second nature to you are hard to find for exactly that reason: they’re SO natural to you that you don’t even notice them! 

Let’s assume for a moment that you were a goldfish (yes, you read that correctly). If you had to think about what makes you “unique” in order to write them in your main Common App essay (other than the fact that you’re a goldfish who’s APPLYING TO COLLEGE—but I digress!), you might not know what to write. You’d talk about how your gills are slightly longer than your goldfish friends’ gills, how you see your contribution to your “school” of goldfish, or something equally benign—and boring. 

However, it might take your helpful giraffe friend (yes, I’m going there!) to point out to you that: 1) you HAVE GILLS, because 2) YOU LIVE IN WATER. Like, ALL the time!

So, that said, finding your Organizing Principle is one of the hardest things to do for yourself; it often takes a neutral third party (like, say, me) to be the giraffe on the outside of your fishbowl and tell you that the fact that you move by swimming in water all day is, in fact, unique—and exactly what you should make sure to get across in your essay! Being that neutral third party for my students is, in fact, one of the more important contributions I make to their application packages (after helping them achieve the test scores they need to get into that dream school and making sure that they, and their families, survive the application process with sanity intact!).



But some of the ways I help my students find their Organizing Principles are things you can try yourself at home (even without a helpful giraffe friend around). So here’s my take-home method for finding yours.

STEP 1: Inquire into yourself.

Ask yourself this series of questions and WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING that comes to mind! You’re brainstorming here, so get comfortable and don’t think of this as polished writing.

A) My best academic subject is:

B) Here's an example of my ”academic success,” however I define it:

C) Here are my extracurricular interests:

D) Here’s how I’ve spent my time the last 3 summers: 

E) My idea for a future college major and/or career is:

F) I am excited about:

G) My friends say the best thing about me is:

H) A unique accomplishment (however you define “accomplishment”) of mine is:

I) I’m proud of myself when I:

J) I really care about:

K) In college, I really want to:

L) I chose the activities I’m involved in because:

M) In the future, I hope to:


STEP 2) Find the pattern!

Write down ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING that comes to mind about what these answers have in common! Here are some points to ponder: 

A) What words/topics keep repeating? 

B) What big categories come up, if any?

C) What recurring personality traits seem to come up multiple times?



STEP 3) Identify the themes you see emerging.

If you had to boil down this entire brainstorm into 5 KEY THEMES, QUALITIES or SELLING POINTS that define you, what would they be?

Quality 1:

Quality 2: 

Quality 3:

Quality 4:

Quality 5:


STEP 4) Circle the top 2 Themes / Qualities / Selling Points that most capture you/your personality/your motivation/your main thought process.

Look through the list you’ve just made. Which two are the most important to you? Which are the broadest and most important patterns, bringing the most parts of you together? Which would help someone else understand who you are?


STEP 5) Rejoice! You just identified your Organizing Principle and figured out what you need to convey in your Common App essay!

Armed with your new self-knowledge, you should also look through your Common App and make sure that it’s in evidence wherever it can be. How can you emphasize it so you’re displaying your mature self-awareness and letting your authentic self shine through?

Again, if you need outside guidance to help you identify what the “water” to your “goldfish” is, you can contact me here. Good luck!