Debating Your Way into College: 5 Tips to Take Away from the Presidential Debates

Debating Your Way into College: 5 Tips to Take Away from the Presidential Debates

What do the presidential debates and college admissions have in common?

The need to be convincing.

Election season matches up almost perfectly with college application season, and while the two things are seemingly unrelated, you can learn a lot about applying to college by watching the presidential debates. Again, the main similarity is in the ability to convince someone to do what you want – whether it is to cast a vote for your candidacy as president or as your candidacy as a freshman at your school of choice.

As a college applicant, you need to frame your experiences and interests in a way that resonates with your audience (in this case, the admissions office). Your activities list, GPA and test scores, personal statement for college, letters of recommendation, and college interviews should all work together to tell a compelling story. By strategically putting these pieces together on your application, you just might convince an admissions officer to let you in!

So, in the spirit of election season, I have broken down the presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. From this breakdown of the debates, you just might find some convincing tactics to help you as you write your college applications.

1. Make Sure You Build Your Best Argument:

In debates, everyone can be so excited or passionate about their arguments that they are eager to win the debate with one big “Gotcha!” moment or to produce one compelling sound bite that resonates with the judge or audience after the debate is finished. In order to achieve this, debaters may eagerly interrupt their opponent during their opponents’ allotted speaking time or try to talk over them. Hillary and Trump – Trump in particular – are both guilty of these moments, but this looks bad for both parties, and almost never achieves the goal. Just as in sports, you can’t usually win the game with one great play, the same goes for debates and arguments. Bide your time, and let your arguments build up to a crescendo.

This point can be applied to the way you write your application. A common mistake to avoid in the personal statement for college is trying to explain rather than show who you are as a person. Taking your time, allowing your argument to build through concrete examples will result in more convincing and engaging essays and application in whole. Trying to explain everything about yourself from your opening sentence is something you should avoid.

2. The Need to Go On the Offensive:

This is a problem that a lot of debaters face, and something that we saw Trump struggle mightily with in the presidential debates. Sometimes, debaters will be eager to answer a criticism or main point that the other side has articulated. So, for instance, if both sides have 2 minutes to offer their arguments and Clinton spends her two minutes talking about how her tax policy will benefit the economy the most, and mentions in one sentence how Trump has been hiding things about his own personal taxes, Trump should not spend most of his 2 minutes of responding time addressing that one line of criticism just because he feels vulnerable to it.

It is ineffective in these presidential debates if a candidate’s content consists of “all defense” and “no offense.”

Similarly, it is ineffective if you take a passive approach to your application. Many students think that simply listing their extracurricular activities and writing whatever essay comes to mind first will produce a fine product. Also, students many times take a passive stance throughout high school, thinking you need to “check boxes” in terms of your activities and volunteering – such as joining student government because everyone else says it will look good. This is not the case – especially if you start planning for college early on in high school.

You have total control of the way an admissions officer reads your application. Go on the offensive. Construct an individual theme or persona. An admissions officer should be able to put down your application and have a specific phrase in mind about who you are as a student and as a person. The way you order your activities list matters and can make a real difference. The topics you choose to write essays about matter. Who and how you ask for letters of recommendation matters. Don’t let your application write itself – you control your own ability to advocate for yourself!

3. Avoid Making Non-Falsifiable Claims:

This is Trump’s biggest strategy, and one of the worst things you can do in a debate and in an application. A non-falsifiable claim is a broad generalization that is impossible to debunk without tons of evidence or significant time to explain. Whenever Trump has been questioned on the specifics of his policies, he would try to shift the discussion to the results he believed they would achieve. Thus, when questioned on creating more American jobs, he would talk about popularly appealing sentiments about jobs being outsourced to other countries or about what a good businessman he was. These things may or may not be true, but they certainly weren’t directly responsive to the question. Trump banks on the fact that most voters don’t have the attention span or the attention to detail to delve into the specific policies. Rather, he does a good job of simply trying to tell them what they want to hear.

While this tactic may actually work for Trump in terms of gaining votes from the presidential debates, it certainly won’t work for you in terms of gaining admittance to college.

You want to make specific, unique claims about yourself in your application. You should back these up with concrete evidence, with details, and with strong stories in your essays and your letters of recommendation. For example, if you are interested in becoming an entrepreneur – which is a very broad, widely-shared interest – you need to make it unique by discussing how you started your first venture when you were a middle schooler, which you’ve seen through to senior year. Or maybe you founded your own company or pioneered your high school’s first business club. Being too broad is an application killer. Back up your interests with concrete details.

And make sure you stand out.

4. Maintain the Best Facial Expressions and Mannerisms:

Especially in the presidential debates with a split screen in which everyone is focused on the two opponents’ face, the mannerism and facial expressions you make while the other person is speaking can be extremely important in giving the audience insight into your thoughts or your temperament. If you smirk or sigh too often, the audience might see you as arrogant and too frustrated to be able to cogently and effectively respond. In these debates, Clinton could only gently smile or laugh at some of the insults Trump volleyed at her, and generally maintained a very professional tone and demeanor even when she was not speaking. Trump though, would point at Hillary, shake his head, and appear visibly frustrated at several moments throughout the debate. He would also nervously sip from his water cup frequently, which is something an audience will notice. Even tiny things like this can have an impact.

If a school requires a college interview, you should take a page out of Hillary’s book. Maintaining pleasant facial expressions and looking engaged rather than bored or nervous will help you connect better with your interviewer. Looking the part is the first step to acing the interview.

5. Frame Your Arguments to Appeal to the Relevant Audience:

In the presidential debates, there is no “winner” or “loser” decided by the moderators or by any kind of judges. The judges in the presidential debate are the voters, and in this case, the American public.

Each candidate’s goal in a debate is to make more people vote for him or her than his or her opponent. So, in this presidential debate, Hillary was unlikely to sway many of the Trump supporters to her side. Instead, her goal was to focus on the moderate and independent voters who were still undecided or who had not followed much of the previous election cycle. Likewise, Trump’s goal was to convince those same people that he was a serious candidate and could legitimately go toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton.

Understanding what your goal is in the debate and who your audience is will help you appeal to them. This is something that is crucial to any persuasive activity, and something we work very hard to teach all of our students at InGenius Prep – particularly when you are applying to college. Your audience is the admissions committee. You need to make sure that you take control of your application, build up the best product, and tell a specific, unique story.

Go back and rewatch the debates – you might just learn how to convince your dream school to vote for you!

About the Author


David Mainiero, Co-Founder and Director of Operations of InGenius Prep, is an experienced educator and academic and admissions counselor with over almost a decade of experience helping students unlock their potential and achieve their dreams. Having founded and run multiple and small businesses, David has a strong entrepreneurial track record.

He graduated from Dartmouth College Summa Cum Laude with Highest Honors in History with a focus on Nationalism in the Near East and was inducted as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Several years later, he earned a JD from Harvard Law School. To this day, he believes that the most important moments in his own education were learning with his peers during his time as a Policy Debater in high school and college.

David knows firsthand what success looks like and how to achieve it; his passion to help students discover their own passions and realize their fullest potential motivates him to travel all around the world to share his visions for educational access.