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Advice for submitting application videos to colleges

Many colleges now invite students to submit optional short videos as part of their applications as a way to inject a little more of their personal voice into the process. Here’s University of Chicago’s invitation:

If you would like to add your voice to your application, you have the option to submit a two-minute video introduction in lieu of the traditional college interview, which is not part of our application process. Your recording does not need to be extensively rehearsed or polished, and the video does not need to be edited. You may record your video introduction using the platform of your choice, and then upload either a file of or link to the introduction into your UChicago Account. If there is any important information relevant to your candidacy you were unable to address elsewhere in the application, please share that information here.

It’s hard to give universally applicable advice about videos like this (other than obvious ones, like follow the directions and don’t record anything that would embarrass you if your parents or teachers saw it). Don’t be funny? Don’t overproduce your video? Don’t make anything so out-there that it’s inaccessible to viewers? The truth is that some applicants can pull those videos off, and others can’t.

But at the risk of being a one-trick advising pony, I think our Collegewise advice around college essays applies perfectly here.

1. Don’t try to impress—just tell the truth.
You don’t want the viewer to feel like they’re watching a sales pitch, and much as with college essays, that happens in videos when applicants just try too hard to guess what admissions officers want. So if you’re a musically expressive person who loves writing catchy jingles and you want to sing a personal song while playing the ukulele, that sounds like a pretty honest portrayal of who you are. But if you’re forcing yourself to do it because you are trying to stand out and you think showing off your uke chops will get the job done, that’s trying too hard to be something you’re not. Your goal should be to capture something, no matter how simple or complex, that makes the people who know you best say, “That is so you!”

2. Own your stories/footage.
If it would be possible for 1000 other applicants to shoot the same video, there’s a good chance there will be plenty of others just like yours in the figurative stack when you apply. The way to counter that is to use details. Example: If you’re a basketball player, you could include highlights of hitting jump shots, but there are plenty of other varsity basketball players who could and probably will provide the same footage. Instead, you could begin a video on the neighborhood court where you first began playing basketball when you were 8, explain how you tagged along with your older brothers and how you’ll never forget the day they finally invited you to join, tell the viewers how you spent your entire summer before 10th grade working out here by yourself because you knew that the ability to drive to the hoop with your left hand as well as your right would be a key to your game, and film the spot under the hoop where you tore ligaments in your ankle and had to sit out for your junior season. Another basketball player might have their own similar experiences. But these particular memories on that particular course are yours alone. Details make all the difference.

3. Don’t repeat information from the rest of your application.
If the viewer finishes the video and thinks, “That was nice, but I already knew this information,” you’ve just missed a big opportunity. Playing your favorite violin piece is nice, but if you’ve been in the orchestra for three years, that skill is not exactly new information. So either share something that hasn’t been mentioned at all on the application, or use the video to shed visual light on a new aspect of something already mentioned. Example: if you worked at a deli in high school, you don’t need to provide video evidence in the form of, “Here’s the deli where I work.” But if the job gave you a real appreciation for the art of making a proper pastrami on rye—and you haven’t explained that in any of your essays—that is brand new information to the viewer.

4. Sound like you.
If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re quirky, be quirky. If you’re a nerd, let the nerdiness fly. This video is meant to capture you, not to make a commercial featuring a performer playing a part. So don’t say or do anything that feels like acting. Your video should not require a script or intensive rehearsal. Sure, don’t ramble with no end in sight—you should know what you want to talk about when the camera rolls. But the more rehearsed, polished, or otherwise unnatural you appear, the less effective your video will be. And if you’re really not comfortable with the idea of being on a video at all, don’t make one! Colleges mean it when they say that something is optional, and there is no hidden penalty for opting out, especially if you’re uncomfortable with the medium altogether.

5. A bonus tip: Relax.
As long as your video isn’t blatantly offensive or cause for concern over your safety (or the safety of your future college peers), it’s not likely the video alone will torpedo your admissions chances. It’s also equally unlikely that a video alone will shift the admissions tide if the readers were already leaning towards a denial. So let yourself off the hook. Don’t let the video be yet another source of stress where you feel like you’re under the application microscope. If you like the idea of recording something, go record the video that makes you happy and proud to share. Colleges are in the business of evaluating, understanding, and getting to know 17-year-olds. A video that works for you is one that will probably work for them, too.