How to Make Your College Application Stand Out with a Theme

07/06/202415 minute read
How to Make Your College Application Stand Out with a Theme

A college application without a theme is like a movie without a plot — just a series of disjointed scenes. It’s forgettable, and it can even be confusing. Just as a storyline weaves together the characters, settings, and events of a film, a strong application theme ties together your academics, activities, essays, and letters of recommendation. By presenting a clear and unified narrative, you can make a lasting impression on admissions officers.

In this blog, we will explore the importance of an application theme, how to identify and develop one, and provide practical examples of framing your application around your chosen theme.

What is an Application Theme?

An application theme is a unifying idea or narrative that ties together the components of your college application. It’s the common thread that runs through your essays, extracurriculars, academics, and letters of recommendation. Your theme is what you hope admissions officers learn after reading through your application.

An application theme usually showcases an interest, passion, or strength that defines who you are and what you bring to a university. Instead of presenting a disjointed list of accomplishments, a themed application weaves your experiences into a coherent story.

Admissions officers will identify themes in:

  • The courses you took — and which you performed best in.
  • The progression of your transcript in both performance and subject matter
  • The types of extracurriculars you participated in and what you learned from them.
  • Your essays.
  • Your letters of recommendation, including whether they reinforce or conflict with the rest of your application.

Why is an Application Theme Important?

It’s a tale as old as time: people love stories. In the words of Jeremy Parks, Former Johns Hopkins Admissions Officer: “When we read your application, we are looking for a story. If it was done well, I know more about your goals, passions, where you see yourself in the future, and what others say about you.”

Having a theme in your college application can help you stand out to admissions committees by providing a unified story about your interests, values, and goals. It can also help you showcase your strengths and commitment in a more focused and impactful way. 

Fair warning: It's important to ensure that the theme is authentic and genuinely reflects who you are as a person. Admissions committees are looking for applicants who are sincere in their applications.

We believe that an application theme is one of the most powerful tools to make your application stand out — **and most people miss it. **

Let’s look at how to incorporate an application theme.

Example of Framing Your Application with a Theme

Developing an application theme can require forethought and planning. But many times, creating an application theme is sometimes as simple as choosing the right words to display your activities and achievements. 

Let’s take a look at a student example, before and after implementing an application theme. Both versions include more or less the same activities and information. The difference is in what she chooses to highlight.

A College Application Before and After the Theme
Application ComponentBefore Theme (Disconnected)After Theme (Cohesive)
Academics- AP English, AP US History, AP Calculus Honors Biology and Chemistry - High GPA- AP English, AP US History, AP Calculus Honors Biology and Chemistry - High GPA - Independent Study Project: Conducted research on educational inequalities in urban schools.
Extracurriculars- Debate Team Member: Participated in various debates and won several competitions. - Volunteer at Local Animal Shelter: Helped care for animals and assisted with adoption events. - Part-Time Job at Retail Store: Worked as a cashier and assisted customers with purchases. - President of the Book Club: Organized meetings and selected books for discussion.- Debate Team Member: Participated in debates focusing on social justice issues, winning several competitions. - Volunteer at Local Animal Shelter: Organized community outreach programs to educate about animal rights and welfare. - Part-Time Job at Retail Store: Developed a training program for new hires emphasizing diversity and inclusion. - President of the Book Club: Curated discussions on social justice themes in literature, promoting awareness and activism.
Essays- Common App Essay: Described a challenging hiking trip and what she learned about perseverance. - Supplemental Essay: Discussed her love for reading and how it helps her escape reality.- Common App Essay: Discussed her volunteer work at the local animal shelter and how it taught her about community service and empathy, which she plans to apply to educational and social justice causes. - Supplemental Essay: Highlighted her role as President of the Book Club and how she used it to promote discussions on social justice themes in literature, connecting it to her broader passion for education reform.
Letters of Recommendation- AP English Teacher: Praised her analytical skills and dedication to coursework. - Debate Team Coach: Highlighted her persuasive skills and competitive spirit. - AP English Teacher: Praised her analytical skills and dedication to coursework, especially noting her essays and projects that focused on social justice themes. - Debate Team Coach: Highlighted her persuasive skills and competitive spirit, particularly in debates centered around social justice issues.



Emily's application lacks a cohesive narrative. Her academics are strong, but they don’t clearly connect to her interests in social justice and education. Her extracurriculars are varied but don’t create a unified story. The essays, while well-written, don’t reinforce a central theme, and the letters of recommendation, though positive, don’t emphasize a specific passion or goal.


Emily’s revised application paints a clear picture of her passion for social justice and education. The same academics and extracurriculars are now framed to highlight her interest in social justice and education. The essays provide a compelling narrative that ties her experiences together. And she’s spoken with her recommenders beforehand to ensure the letters of recommendation underscore her dedication and effectiveness in her chosen field. This cohesive approach makes her application memorable and impactful.

Application Theme Example 1: The Environmentally Conscious Innovator

Activities and Achievements

  • Research and Advocacy: You conduct independent research on sustainable agricultural practices and publish your findings in a student-led environmental journal. As an advocate for eco-friendly policies, you join a local youth advisory council focused on climate action.
  • Entrepreneurship: You start a small business producing eco-friendly household products, integrating principles of circular economy and social entrepreneurship.
  • Extracurricular Engagement: As the leader of your school's environmental club, you organize community clean-up events and awareness campaigns. Collaborating with the art department, you create a recycled art installation to educate peers on waste reduction.


  • You write about a transformative experience that sparked your passion for sustainability, such as a family trip that exposed you to the impacts of climate change.
  • You discuss your entrepreneurial journey and the challenges and successes of launching your eco-friendly business.

Letters of Recommendation

  • Your science teacher highlights your innovative research and ability to connect scientific principles with real-world applications.
  • An advisor from the youth council commends your leadership skills and dedication to environmental advocacy.

Application Theme Example 2: The Global Cultural Ambassador

Activities and Achievements

  • Study and Travel: You participate in exchange programs and study different cultures and languages. You create a personal blog or video series to document these experiences.
  • Community Projects: You promote multicultural understanding and cooperation by organizing cultural festivals and language exchange meetups at school.
  • Academic Integration: You collaborate with the social studies department to create a model United Nations club. You excel in courses related to international relations, global history, and foreign languages.


  • You share a story about a significant cultural exchange experience that changed your perspective and inspired your commitment to global citizenship.
  • You describe your efforts in organizing cultural events and how these initiatives fostered a more inclusive and globally aware school community.

Letters of Recommendation

  • Your history teacher highlights your academic achievements and passion for international studies.
  • An exchange program coordinator commends your adaptability, leadership, and enthusiasm for cultural exchange.

How to Identify Your Application Theme


Begin by reflecting on your personal interests, passions, and strengths. Ask yourself:

  • What subjects and activities excite you the most?
  • Where have you shown consistent dedication? 
  • What do you genuinely enjoy doing in your free time? 
  • What topics do you love to discuss?
  • What achievements are you most proud of? 

Academic Interests

Look at your academic record and identify subjects where you have excelled or shown a particular interest. This could include advanced coursework in STEM, humanities, arts, or any other field that you are passionate about. 

For instance, if you have consistently chosen science electives and participated in science fairs, a theme centered around scientific inquiry and innovation could be compelling.

Extracurricular Activities

Identify any common threads in your commitments outside the classroom. For example, if you’ve been involved in student government, debate club, and community organizing, your theme might center on leadership and advocacy. Alternatively, if you have pursued artistic endeavors such as theater, music, or visual arts, your theme could highlight creativity and expression.

Personal Experiences

Think about significant life events, personal stories, or challenges you have overcome that have shaped who you are. For example, overcoming a major obstacle can illustrate resilience and adaptability. 

By surveying your life, you can identify a cohesive theme that weaves together your academic interests, extracurricular activities, and personal experiences. This theme will make your application more memorable and showcase your unique strengths.

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How to Craft Your Application Around Your Theme

To weave your theme into your application, consider each component of your application.


To reinforce your application theme, choose courses that align with your interests — and do well in them! For example, if your theme revolves around environmental science, take advanced biology, chemistry, and environmental studies classes. Work to achieve high grades in these subjects to demonstrate your dedication and expertise. Seek out related academic opportunities, like research projects or internships.


Choose activities that support your theme. Consistent involvement in relevant extracurriculars shows your passion and long-term commitment. For example, if your theme is centered on social justice, engage in activities like debate club, volunteer work with advocacy groups, or leadership roles in student government. The key is to focus on quality and depth of involvement rather than quantity. 

Pro Tip: Sustained commitment in a few areas is more impactful than superficial participation in many.


Write compelling stories that reflect your application theme. Share specific experiences that illustrate your passion and growth. For example, if your theme is about overcoming adversity, you might write about a significant challenge you faced, how you overcame it, and how it shaped your aspirations and character. Ensure that your essays are authentic and tie back to your theme.

Letters of Recommendation 

Request recommendations from people who can speak to your thematic strengths. Choose teachers, mentors, or supervisors who have observed your dedication and achievements in areas related to your theme. For instance, if your theme is scientific innovation, a recommendation from your science teacher or a research mentor who can attest to your skills, curiosity, and contributions would be valuable. 

Pro Tip: Provide your recommenders with insights into your theme and examples of your work to help them write strong, focused letters.

Other Application Components

Ensure all parts of your application, including supplementary materials, align with your theme. This could include portfolios, resumes, and additional essays. For example, if your theme involves artistic creativity, submit a portfolio showcasing your best work. If you have a research background, include abstracts of your projects or papers. Consistency across all components of your application reinforces your theme and presents a unified, compelling narrative to admissions officers.

*Pro Tip: Include portfolios or personal projects by linking to them in the **Additional Information section *of the Common App.

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Application Theme Case Studies

The Compassionate Innovator in Healthcare Technology

This student aimed to merge his interests in technology and healthcare. 

  • Academics: Excelling in biology and computer science, he took advanced courses and participated in a coding bootcamp where he focused on developing health-related applications. 
  • Extracurriculars: He volunteered at a hospital, where he witnessed firsthand the challenges patients and healthcare providers face. This inspired him to create a mobile app that helps streamline patient check-ins and track medical records more efficiently. 
  • Essays: In his personal essay, he wrote about how watching his grandparents struggle with their health conditions (Alzheimer’s disease and hearing loss) inspired him to pursue this field. 
  • Additional Info: ​​This student had official patents and recognition from the local government. He linked directly to them in the Additional Information section.
  • Recommendations: Both his computer science teacher and the hospital volunteer coordinator wrote letters of recommendation underscoring his unique blend of technical ability and compassion. 

The Future Urban Planner with a Passion for Sustainable Cities

This student was deeply passionate about urban development and environmental 


  • Academics: She excelled in advanced geography and environmental science courses, showing a strong academic interest in how cities can be designed to be more eco-friendly. 
  • Extracurriculars: Outside the classroom, she led the school's environmental club, organizing initiatives to reduce waste and promote recycling. She also participated in a summer program focused on urban planning and sustainability at a local university. There, she developed a proposal for a green public park in an underserved community. 
  • Essays: For her personal essay, she wrote about her vision for future cities that prioritize both human well-being and environmental health. 
  • Recommendations: Letters of recommendation from her geography teacher and the director of the summer program emphasized her dedication and innovative ideas in sustainable urban planning.

The Artist-Activist for Social Change

A student with a strong background in the arts and a commitment to social justice crafted a theme around using creativity for activism. 

  • Academics: She excelled in visual arts and history, often blending the two in projects that highlighted social issues.
  • Extracurriculars: She led her school's art club and organized exhibitions that addressed topics like racial equality and gender rights. During the summer, she interned at a community art center where she helped develop workshops for marginalized youth. 
  • Essays: In her personal statement, she recounted how art became a powerful tool for raising awareness and driving change, sharing personal stories of how their work impacted their community. 
  • Recommendations: Her art teacher and the director of the community art center wrote letters of recommendation that emphasized her talent and dedication to social activism through art. This painted a vivid picture of her contributions and potential.


A well-crafted theme highlights your dedication and offers a strategic advantage in the admissions process. It can make your application more memorable and compelling for admissions officers. By aligning your academics, extracurriculars, essays, and letters of recommendation around a central theme, you present a clear and authentic narrative that showcases your unique strengths and passions. 

If you're ready to create an outstanding application that tells your story effectively, book a free consultation with Crimson today. Our expert advisors are here to help you every step of the way.

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