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Finding Your "X" Factor

By Brendan Conway updated on Wednesday, September 11, 2013

When you're applying to colleges, you're likely going to be coming up against all kinds of students with good qualifications like yours. There's a good chance that, in the end, you're going to be compared with all kinds of students who are on the same playing field as you with regard to testing scores, GPA, and other parts of the application. What you need to do to give yourself the best advantage possible is to find your x-factor, the special thing that you offer, and emphasize it.

What is an x-factor?

Your x-factor is the thing that makes you unique. It's the thing that you're most passionate about, the skill that you've honed over time and effort and plenty of practice, or the work that you do that separates you out from everyone else. It's not something that's easily condensable to a number or a score, and you'll likely need to go to additional lengths in other areas to successfully communicate your x-factor. But rest assured -- it's worth your time to go to those lengths.

Do you play an instrument? That could be your x-factor. Do you work for a charitable organization regularly? Same thing. Do you participate in some extracurricular club or activity in which you excel? Do you play a sport? Write a blog? Edit a magazine? Is there some cause that you focus on in particular?

Nearly anything that you do beyond the confines of academic activity might be your x-factor. The key traits are that:

  • You do it passionately, with interest and attention.
  • You do it well.
  • You do it more frequently than every now and then.

How do I find my x-factor?

If you're not sure of what your x-factor is, then there are a number of ways that you can discover it. The primary rule is to explore your own interests, your own passions -- don't just do something for the sake of doing it. Most college admissions officers will be able to tell if your interest in a particular activity is genuine, or is simply for the sake of your resume, by virtue of other pieces of information, such as how long you've been doing the activity, or your interest as expressed in an interview. You're always better off exploring activities that you're actually interested in.

Similarly, if you're planning on doing some kind of service activity, make sure that you're doing it because you're actually interested in helping -- not because you want to add it to your college application. Devoting yourself to community service can be very rewarding, and can make for a great x-factor, but if you're just doing it for the sake of how it looks, not fully committing yourself to it, then it's not going to make much of an impression to admissions officers.

The best x-factors you can focus on are those that are going to showcase your development in addition to your skill and commitment. If you can show how you've moved from being a member of a sports team to being a team captain, then your performance in that sport is only going to be an even more effective x-factor.

A great way to find and grow your x-factor is with summer experiences at colleges, in immersion in particular jobs or roles, and so on. Spending your summers in such programs will not only give you experiences you can point to, but it will actually help you learn the skills that you'll need to truly make your x-factor special. 

How to translate your x-factor into admission

One of the first steps to using your x-factor successfully in the college admissions process is to find colleges where your x-factor will be most desired. This is going to involve research and advice. Speak to people who participate in the community for your x-factor, or guidance counselors, or advisers, or anyone at a college you're interested in applying to, to find out about how your x-factor slots into that college's identity. Look into multiple colleges and universities to see how they vary with regard to your x-factor. Some colleges might have a better community service program than others, for example. If your x-factor is your community service, then you might look into the colleges that have better community service programs to apply to them.

Also be sure to show your x-factor! This doesn't mean being to show-offy, flagrantly parading your community service or special talent around in front of admissions officers. But it does mean making sure they're aware of the work you're doing. Mention it in your applications in the appropriate spaces. Perhaps speak about it in your essay. When you're speaking to an admissions officer in an interview, ask if there's any activity on campus that would correlate to your x-factor. Ask if there are any scholarships for it. If it's an option, be sure to show off your best work possible.

All in all, be sure to both find your x-factor, and make sure it's a part of your applications to give you that extra admissions edge.

About the Author

Brendan Conway is the Web Content Editor for Peterson's Interactive and is well-versed in the world of higher education and admissions. He is a graduate of Hamilton College, and has been working in admissions advice, test-prep advice, career planning advice, and similar fields for the majority of his career since graduation. Brendan endeavors to provide the most relevant, useful, and interesting information via Peterson's Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ feeds. Brendan enjoys lexicological oddities and voraciously reading in his free time.

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