Have you noticed the shift in college admissions lately? For a long while now, admissions offices have discussed “crafting a class” or “admitting a well-rounded class.” Elite institutions have the luxury of looking at thousands of applications and cherry-picking the best and the brightest, in the hopes of creating a legacy of bright, enthusiastic brand ambassadors for their institutions. Now it seems bright students everywhere want to be their own brand ambassador, and they don’t care what others’ think. Which seemed like a great idea until uniqueness turned into a brand unto itself, with the “individual snowflake” mentality fooling young people into thinking everyone was obligated to approve and accept their brand of individuality. Unfortunately, branding only works when the brand is congruent with the product. And even then, people are not obligated to buy.

As most business professionals are aware, a brand encompasses more than just the product being sold. A brand includes feelings, impressions, and assumptions. Americans have felt this shift in advertising. Car commercials have become famous for it. Long gone are the pictures of cars with rough voiceovers telling us about the engines and torque. Now we have Matthew McConaughey driving a Lincoln, talking to himself. This commercial was famously lampooned in all sorts of social media. Why? The branding was wrong. Matthew McConaughey’s brand was not about thinking, it was about action and sarcasm. We had a hard time believing he was circumspect about anything because he was so often acting thoughtlessly onscreen. He may want to be thought of that way, but that branding was incongruent with his established image.

Think about this when you meet people. A lot has been made about wearing a tie, or not wearing a hoodie, or avoiding flip-flops, but we all know it is not just about the clothes. It’s about the brand. “What will people think?” is a question asked by previous generations, but not so much by generations Y and Z. It is not necessarily a question about conforming, it might be that answering this question sets you free to be who you are, in a good way!

I am going to go out on a limb here and make a suggestion: could your brand be linked to your character? “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” should make you pause and think about why you do what you do. I don’t mean to say that you are only defined by outward appearances, but well, you ARE making statements by your appearance and interactions, and others are listening and forming opinions. They are matching your brand to what they want and need at their college or business. Personal congruence, or matching the outside to the inside, has major benefits. Here are 3 groups of questions to ask when you are pondering your personal brand.

  1. Who are you thinking about? Most of the time, students are only concerned with themselves, with how they feel and look to themselves and their peers. But really take a good look at yourself. Are your outward expressions (dress, language, hygiene, e-mail account, Facebook profile) a real testimony to a brand others want to invest in? Ask people you trust to give you an objective opinion about their impression of you. Is it congruent with who you are inside? Can it be improved? What might that look like?
  2. Who influences you the most? They say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” so who are you imitating? Some forms of dress and action seem cool onscreen or on a YouTube video, but what do you actually think of people who look and act like that in real life? Are those people having the kind of relationships and opportunities you want to have? What do the decision makers in your life think about your “brand ambassadors?” For instance, unless you are really working on becoming a foul-mouthed rock star, where does acting like one get you?
  3. What are your goals? Okay, so you looked at the above two questions and came up with “I am a unique snowflake, unlike else in the world.” Terrific! Are you projecting a brand that will take you where you want to go? Are you a gamer, but trying to get into an elite business program? Are you an athlete, but trying to get an academic scholarship? Your brand can help or hurt your chances. This is less about “conforming” and all about “informing.” How can you inform the college admissions panel, scholarship committee, or internship interviewer that your brand is worth the risk? Projecting the kind of brand people trust is a step in the right direction, and usually that brand is about true, trustworthy character.

The next time you are tempted to say, “I don’t care what others’ think about me” just know that you can’t control it, you can only influence it, and if you abdicate your influence you have only yourself to blame. Because, honestly, you do care, especially when others hold the key to your future possibilities

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