It was an easy mistake — small print, lots of application balls in the air at once and a teenager who had never managed a complex process before. When my oldest son applied to college, he and I thought we knew when the application was due. We assumed his Common App and art supplement needed to be submitted by Nov. 1, for early admission. As I obsessed about him applying to college, a not uncommon response to the looming reality of a teenager leaving home, I reread the admissions website and discovered his supplement was due before the application. He now had three days to finish what he thought was not due for almost three weeks.
In that moment, we both came to understand how a simple error could have an outsize effect on admissions.
Here are other mistakes to avoid, according to college admissions officers around the country.
Telling your story
Don’t waste precious words on the admission essay by restating the prompt or discussing an activity listed elsewhere on the application. Gary Clark, director of undergraduate admission at UCLA, says it is also a major missed opportunity when students spend too much of their essay describing a scene or another person who plays a role in their story. The essay needs to offer new insight into the candidate.
Admissions committees are time-constrained. An essay that gets to the main point quickly with a very strong opening sentence and drops the reader right into the moment without a long buildup is more likely to grab the reader’s attention.
A chance for your voice to be heard
“As an applicant, you need and should have an editor,” says Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech and co-author of “The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.” “Sometimes the best editor is a parent, someone you trust. But students need to watch for when an editor becomes a second author. I tell students that even in your high school you can think of someone who basically has the same grades, classes, and test scores as you do and is just as involved with their activities. The essay is your opportunity to separate yourself, to insert your voice. Don’t let someone rob you of the very thing that we are looking for: that unique, personal voice. I think parents can unintentionally do that.”
Colleges seek honesty and authenticity in the admission essay. “Whatever a student can do to get their true self across to us is worthwhile,” says Gregory Sneed, vice president of enrollment management at Denison University. “One of the big misconceptions is students feel they need some sort of disadvantage in their background in order to make a compelling case and that’s not at all true.”
Gary Clark urges students to answer the questions in a straightforward manner and cautions them not to offer up “overcrafted, thesaurus-ridden answers.” “Too often students think they need to construct themselves into what they think we want to see,” he says. He tells students to “think less about what you think we want to hear, and more about what you want to say.”
Simple mistakes that matter
Students should use a single, legal form of their name for every interaction around their college application, as well as a single email account and cellphone number to ensure that all their data gets into their file in a timely manner.
Colleges often email and sometimes call a student. Although these forms of communication are not entirely native to teenagers, applicants need to get comfortable with both. Colleges may email about honors programs, scholarships, campus visits or missing information on the application. Missing an email or voice mail can be costly. Equally, students are urged to regularly check the online portal to make sure their application is complete.
Teacher and counselor recommendations
After the essay, the recommendation of a teacher, coach or counselor is another important way admission committees come to know a student. Rick Clark urges students to ask for recommendations from the teacher who knows them best and can share insight into the student’s growth (maybe they had them in the ninth and 11th grades), their work ethic, endeavor, resilience and character. Students are often tempted to ask the teacher who gave them the best grade, but that information is already on the transcript.
When you have made a mistake, own it
Colleges recognize that teenagers make mistakes and errors in judgment. But how the college finds out about an applicant’s misstep may affect matriculation. “We are parents. We have our own kids and they are not perfect,” Rick Clark says. His impression of a candidate is affected positively when the student is forthcoming about his or her error with the admissions office. “That carries a lot of weight. … It’s a character thing. We are building a community, we don’t expect perfection but we do want character.”
“It’s rare for a student to voluntarily disclose information [of an infraction] in an application, where we would hold that against the student in the review process,” Sneed says. “What frustrates us is when there is a disciplinary violation and the student doesn’t volunteer that information and we find out later. Then the situation is less about the violation and more about the truthfulness of the student.”
It’s all about quality, not quantity. Colleges are not looking for a laundry list of extracurricular activities but instead seek genuine involvement or interest in an activity. They can see through students who are padding their résumé.
“When a student, at the end of their junior year or the beginning of their senior year, suddenly joins a large number of organizations, that raises an eyebrow because it does not demonstrate sustained depth of involvement and true interest,” Sneed says. “What stands out are students who have done a handful of things and have done them really well and have distinguished themselves either through their leadership, some sort of special talent, or their dedication.”
Does a college expect a student to demonstrate their interest?
As part of the application, some colleges consider “demonstrated interest” in their admission decision, Sneed says. Students should convey their interest to these colleges, as it will be tracked and recorded in their application file. The Common Data set for each college shows the gradient of importance of “demonstrated interest,” in the application from very important to not considered at all.
A student can show genuine interest, explains Susan Dabbar, an independent educational consultant and founder of Admissions Smarts, by visiting campus for a tour or information session. For students without the time or resources to visit, Dabbar suggests they email and start talking with their regional college admission representative (who may be one of their application’s first readers), attend an information session at their high school or a local college fair to meet their rep, and read all email communication from the college.
“Research the schools on their final college list to see if they offer or require an [in-person or online] interview. It is one of the best ways to learn more about each other,” Dabbar says. Applicants can express their interest if there is a supplemental essay question asking why a student wants to attend that college. “The ‘why us’ essay is a place to really shine and tell a school what you’ve learned, why you want to attend and what you hope to contribute. I tell my students, ‘Write this essay like you’re in love,'” Dabbar says.
Don’t reverse engineer the application process
“Beware of the gospel, according to the neighbor,” Gary Clark cautions parents and teenagers. He urges applicants to refrain from trying to “reverse engineer” the college admissions process and infer what a college is seeking from past admission decisions. Colleges consider a large number of factors when evaluating a student, as well as their need to build a freshman class.
Clark explains that when a student with a certain SAT score was not admitted to UCLA or a student with a large number of AP scores was, it is too easy to make inaccurate inferences about what the admissions committee was seeking. He reminds applicants that at many colleges, particularly in selective and highly selective universities, a student may not have been admitted simply because there were too many qualified applicants.
Lisa Heffernan is the co-author of the recently released “Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults.”