College Application Mistakes:
A Crash Course
I have three words to say about college application mistakes: Don't make them.
Easier said than done? Not when you're through reading this. You see, your college application is a package. Meaning, no one part of it stands alone. Your scores, your extracurriculars, your essay, your supplemental essays, your supplemental materials, your interviews at the schools of your choice—they all work together to tell your story, and hopefully, to help you stand out.
Your college application mistakes can be a part of that package, as well.
Yes, your your college application is a package. So if you allow some all-too-common mistakes to creep into your application it really work against you. Even if you do an amazing job on other parts of your college application. That’s why, before you plunge into the CommonApp, you’ll want to take a look at the common mistakes students (and their well-meaning parents) make when applying to college.
And then avoid them yourself, of course!
COLLEGE APPLICATION MISTAKES:
YOUR APPLICATION IS OUT OF FOCUS.
Of all the college applications mistakes you can make, this one is numero uno. It's also, perhaps, the most subtle of them all, which may be why it's number one on our list. But you're up to this. I know you are.
In Step Five, we discussed the importance of identifying and highlighting your “story” for college admissions officers. As I said then, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include your superabundance of extracurriculars on the CommonApp. Before you start with the résumé-padding, though, consider this: If your extracurriculars don’t tell a story, you may want to reevaluate which—and how many—of them you include.
Last year, one parent who hired me to help her daughter sent me a series of emails listing some of the activities she felt should be included on her daughter’s CommonApp. There was the job her daughter had had for two months—for a total of three hours a week. There was a brief stint during the summer after eighth grade when her daughter had tried out a new sport. (“Could we fudge it? It was practically high school,” she wrote.)
Regardless of whether these activities were legit, something was even more troubling to me about this mother’s emails. In each, she took advice she’d gleaned from info sessions with admissions officers and twisted it into rationale for including these extracurriculars on her daughter’s app.
“Admissions officers like to see real world work experience.”
“Admissions officers like to see a willingness to try new things.”
The “leadership” position:
“Admissions officers like to see leadership positions.”
And while all these things may be true, what concerned me was the way these activities actually made her daughter’s “story” more diffuse, more unfocused.
In short, they made her less of a stand-out candidate. Instead of allowing us to highlight the activities her daughter had chosen, participated in, and enjoyed because they actually had to do with her long-term interests and her strengths as a candidate, these extra extracurrics distracted from the main point and made her daughter, well, generic.
In the end, focus and quality won out over quantity. We ditched the “filler” extracurrics and highlighted those activities which best represented her daughter as a person, student, and applicant. And her daughter’s tightly-focused story—compelling, unique, stand-out—won her admission to her first choice college.
COLLEGE APPLICATION MISTAKES:
YOU'VE PICKED A BAD MATCH.
If you’ve followed my college search process up until this point, chances are that your list of potential colleges fits well with your credentials and capacities. But as your “story” takes shape, as you allow your identity as an applicant to come into focus, you’ll want to be certain that the schools on your list are still a match. You’ll want to be sure that colleges that are going to make you spend $60-$80 to apply are going to appreciate what you have to offer. And that you’re going to appreciate (and make the most of) what those colleges have to offer.
Consider one of my students, who was hanging on to a lot of not-quite-a-match schools even as we entered the application phase. She was a good candidate, and together, we’d come up with a focused story related to her interest in both psychology and music, which she thought might lead her to a career in music therapy.
The problem? Several of the schools on her list had music departments that focused almost exclusively on the academic side of music rather than the technical and performance sides. Even if she was admitted, they didn’t offer programs that would prepare her for the future she hoped to pursue.
So why was she still hanging on to them? That’s the question to ask yourself if you find yourself with a well-honed story that doesn’t quite “fit” with a college’s offerings. Ask yourself, Why am I applying to this college if it’s not going to support me as a student? Why am I applying to a school that isn’t going to help me grow in the ways I want to grow?
If you can come up with other reasons the school is still a fit, then keep it on your list. If not, ditch that bad match and focus your energy on the schools that are a match for you and your story.
COLLEGE APPLICATION MISTAKES:
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS...AND YOU'VE MISSED HIM.
Are you one of those students with 12+ colleges on your list? Or perhaps you’re planning to go for 20—the max the CommonApp will allow. Whether you’re applying to five schools or upwards of fifteen, beware: Colleges have figured out how to gauge your level of interest. And if you don’t pay attention, you may end up paying an $80 application fee just to get dumped in the reject pile.
The CommonApp has handy functionality that won’t allow you to submit your application to each individual school until all the criteria for the school is met. So you won’t be able to submit your application to College X, for example, without answering their supplemental essay questions.
But speaking of College X, let’s consider the tale of two applicants—both students I worked with in different capacities.
Student A’s parents hired me to walk her through the application process step by step. As part of this work, I did a thorough study of College X’s admissions pages and discovered that the school strongly recommends an interview. Student A was from out of state, but no matter. She scheduled an interview with an alumni rep and soon had a successful interview completed and included in her admissions package. College X was a reach for her, and not her first choice. But she was happily surprised to be waitlisted when the college sent out its acceptances in the spring.
Student B was a stronger student than Student A, and College X should have been a surer bet. Unfortunately, the only part of Student B’s application process that involved my participation was the writing of his admissions essay. Although his essay and other credentials were strong, his dad called in the spring to let me know that he’d been outright rejected from several of his top schools—College X included.
That was when I asked if they’d visited the school, or whether he’d bothered to schedule an interview. His father’s answer made my heart sink: “Would that have made a difference?”
The moral of the story is that details do matter. So scour the admissions pages of the schools on your list.
If the school emphasizes the importance of an interview, make scheduling an interview a priority. If the school asks you to sign up for an online account and to interface with other applicants, you can be sure that the school is using your participation (or lack thereof) to gauge your interest. If the college of your choice indicates that it’s important for you to connect—via email or phone—with an admissions officer, don’t ignore their prompting.
Your willingness to dig for specifics, and to follow through on them, could mean the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.
COLLEGE APPLICATION MISTAKES:
YOUR COLLEGE APPLICATION IS FULL OF GLITTERING GENERALITIES.
By the time you get around to the supplemental essay questions that many schools ask you to answer, you’re probably going to be pretty burned out on the admissions process. 250 words of reflection on a college’s motto is the last thing you want to write—now or ever. But beware: A supplemental essay question answered with a lack of focus or specific detail can be a huge strike against you.
Supplemental essay questions aren’t just a way for a college to measure your writing ability. More significantly, they allow a school to gauge your interest and level of commitment. Colleges want to see three things from your supplemental essays:
They want to see that you’ve done your research. In other words, don’t even begin to answer a supplemental essay question until you’ve visited a school’s website and spent some time poking around. What kind of students is the school looking for? What are the school’s central values? What core beliefs or ideals does it foster in its student body? And so on.
Even if the answers to these questions don’t come directly into play when you answer the supplemental essay questions, they should inform how you choose to answer. Basically, your supplemental essay is both an opportunity to tell the school more about who you are as an applicant, and to telegraph that you understand something specific about the school.
They want to see that you’ve put thought and care into your answer. I’ll admit it: Often, supplemental essay questions don’t inspire creativity. Reflecting on a school’s motto, commenting on one of its central ideals, responding to a pithy statement from one of its founders…yawn.
That said, you’ll need to put your best critical thinking skills to work on these supplemental essays or risk tanking an otherwise-stellar application. Don’t answer with generalities. Don’t whip through an answer just to get it done. Find a key point that shows insight and thoughtfulness, and then develop it over the course of your answer. The fact that you only have to write 250 words should at least provide some measure of relief.
They want to see that you’ve taken the time to shape and craft your answer, even when the max word count is 250 words. Don’t be fooled. Structure does matter—even in an answer this short. In fact, your answer should actually have a thesis statement of some kind, even though you won’t have an official introductory paragraph.
The key piece to remember is to figure out your main point before you begin writing, state it up front (within the first couple sentences), and then spend the rest of your answer developing that main idea. Your application will thank you—and so will the admissions officer who reads it!