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How to Get Colleges to Notice You: Commoditized vs. Innovative Products

Just like how generic brands of cola don't stand out from each other, the same can be said for certain strategies in applying to college.

Commoditized products

What do electricity, incandescent light bulbs, and paper cups have in common? They are all examples of commoditized products.

These are things that support whatever you do in your daily life. It is hard to differentiate within each of those categories (think: is there really a big difference between one brand of paper cups versus another?), as people perceive you as all the same, so they just choose whatever is cheapest.

In other words, these are things that “keep the lights on” (they operate in the background to keep your daily operations running). They don’t give you any competitive advantage (think: having a better coffee mug isn’t going to help you be a better student or a more productive professional).

With commoditized products, it is a total buyer’s market. As a seller, there is no reason to battle on product features here, as people don’t even notice the difference (think: toilet paper, ballpoint pens, etc.). Your product just needs to function competently and consistently.

Innovative products

Now what do drones, iPhones, and electric cars have in common? They are all examples of innovative products.

These are things that are at the forefront of what you do; they give you a competitive advantage. For example, Amazon using drones to package and deliver shipments gives them a significant advantage over other online retailers.

These products have features (real or perceived) that others don’t have, so sellers can charge a premium. That’s why Apple keeps coming out with new iPhones, as they’re trying to delay the commoditization of their product by feeding the public’s thirst for new features.

With innovative products, marketing efforts actually make a difference in terms of sales and profitability. The result is more leverage for the seller; hence it is a seller’s market.

Advantages and disadvantages

With commoditized products, since customers perceive all the products as the same, the only way to stand out from competitors is to cut price. But there is a clear floor on how much you can cut price. In other words, this is a race to the bottom, and it’s not a victory you would feel great about.

With innovative products, since your product is unique and it helps the customer move the needle in terms of their personal or business productivity, price is no longer the most relevant factor in driving sales. If your product costs $10 but it helps the customer make $15 and it’s the only one of its kind on the market, then it’s a worthwhile purchase. In this case, you are differentiating based on unique features of your product, not on price. There is no limit to the kinds of features you can add to your product to stay ahead of the competition, unlike with price, where there is a clear limit to how much room you have to maneuver.

Here is another way to think of this concept. The amount of money you can put into your personal savings is simply your revenue (often times an income in the form of a salary) minus your expenses (bills, housing, food, transportation, entertainment, etc.). If you want to increase the money you have left over, you can try to cut your expenses all you want, but it is much more effective to focus your efforts on increasing your personal income.

It is harder to be innovative or to increase your revenue. You actually have to put in real thought and creativity instead of following someone else’s blueprint. But it is clearly more rewarding to go that route.

How this relates to the college admissions process: differentiators vs. non-differentiators

In the college admissions process, you have a finite amount of time to spend on each of your applications. This is especially true if you’re applying to a bunch of schools. After a certain point, the quality of each of your applications will start to go down.

You also have finite resources to dedicate towards improving your applications. The fees that college admission coaching services and test prep centers charge you can really add up. So we must focus our efforts on the things that actually matter in how to get colleges to notice you.

What this means for how to get accepted into college

In other words, we have to focus on the criteria that allow you to truly differentiate yourself from other applicants, as opposed to the “commoditized” criteria like grades and standardized test scores. In thinking about the value that you bring to universities, we must focus on maximizing your revenue (through your differentiating accomplishments outside of school) rather than cutting costs.

Commoditized criteria are objective metrics like grades and test scores. You can only go as high as a 4.0 unweighted GPA or a 1600 on the SAT. If two people have perfect scores you can’t really tell them apart, even if one has a much higher IQ in reality.

So the lesson is that these just have to be “good enough.” You need these scores to be considered, but they won’t put you over the top (necessary but not sufficient), so don’t waste too much time on these because that is not how to get accepted into college.

Innovative criteria are all of the subjective factors: accomplishments outside of the classroom, letters of recommendation, essays, and how all those tell a story about your contributions and character. These are what put you over the top.


Don’t make it a race to the bottom. Even if you’re victorious, you don’t come out a winner. Instead, compete to see who can reach greater and greater heights. It’s harder, but you get to develop your unique identity, and victory actually tastes sweet. Strive to be an innovation, not a commodity. It’s worth it, and it’s how to get accepted into college.

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