It’s college application time again, that annual rite of panic, humiliation, and stress that dominates the last year of high school for seniors. For many students, applications demand the completion of the most dreaded kinds of self-reflection that we all shy away from, for fear of confronting our insecurities and shortcomings. There are highly-detailed forms that need to be filled out, the completion of a vaguely defined essay topic, and questions requiring thoughtful commentary on the importance of extracurricular activities, personal lives, and -perhaps worst of all – an explanation of future goals.
In addition, the agony of college applications is rooted in the fear that if you don’t get into the “right” school, you will be doomed to live a life of poverty, privation, and potential appearances on Caught on Camera or Cops. There’s a lot hinging on just a few pages of paper, and in the heat of the moment, student have been known to make mistakes on their college applications — bad mistakes.
That’s probably why there are countless webpages by admissions representatives and college counselors, such as this one by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), detailing what students need to include in their applications, how to submit successful applications, and the biggest mistakes college students make on their applications. There are plenty of easy mistakes to make: getting the address wrong, forgetting to send the application fee, and the like.
In this post, I’ve gathered the top five things students should never EVER write on their college applications. I’m not saying you’ll be rejected by all the schools you apply to if you commit any of these errors, but I do suggest that you try your best to avoid them in order to maximize the number of fat acceptance envelopes you receive in the mail.
1. Do not misspell your name. I know, it sounds impossible, right? How can anyone misspell their OWN name? Yet student adviser Purvi S. Mody says that she’s seen this many times. Such a mistake is usually a typing error, rather than lack of knowledge of one’s own name. But such errors on applications suggest sloppiness and lack of attention to detail, which hardly indicates college readiness or a commitment to top flight academic achievement. It also betrays a casual approach, as if you don’t care if you get into that college or not. And if that’s the case, why would they want to accept you? Think of your application the same way you would think of your face on a first date. A misspelling error on a college application is the equivalent of having spinach stuck in your teeth the first time you meet someone.
2. Avoid sob stories. The big article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week is all about the importance college admissions officers are placing on whether or not students have “grit,” the ability of a student to overcome obstacles and meet challenges with determination. They want to know if a student is going to be able to handle the demands of college work and their other responsibilities, and not become another drop-out with high student loan debt. So while it’s a good idea to focus on one or two tough situations and your creative solutions to them, do not write an extensive catalog of all the terrible things that have happened to you. Not because they are not important, or did not shape the person you are, but because an application should focus on the future. Explain how you will use the same talents and abilities you used to handle difficulties in the past to form a rewarding future for yourself.
3. Don’t treat the essay as a session in the confessional. The Huffington Post published “The 7 Worst Types of College Essays” in 2010, and the advice that you should avoid writing “The Reformed Convict Essay” bears repeating here:
“This is a favorite for students with marginal grades and a sudden interest in college, based on their parents’ promise of a new car upon acceptance. Having been raised to value honesty, but never actually having practiced much, these students wrongly assume that a full-blown confession (drinking, drugs, probation for stealing neighborhood lawn gnomes) will neutralize a high school transcript full of C’s. But unless Junior’s parents can afford that new car AND Sucker University’s full tuition price, a repentant college essay based on lessons learned from ‘sexting’ probably won’t make it into the yes pile.”
4. Stop bragging already. You know that guy at the party who goes on and on about how he won the America’s Cup even though his crew was swept overboard by a freak tsunami, then wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the experience and donated all the profits to orphans? It’s a great story once, revealing courage, determination, creativity and compassion. But by the fifth time you hear how great he is, you envision throwing him overboard. Similarly, while it’s definitely necessary to highlight your achievements on a college application, you should place them within a larger context. Explain how such triumphs reflect your commitment to hard work, and your plans to continue that hard work in the future. Use your past achievements as examples of your potential for future success, rather than merely opportunities to tell everyone the same thing over and over again. I know how hard it is to write about oneself, but nothing will turn a reader off more than repetition.
5. Don’t write the same thing on every application. It’s very tempting to write one basic letter or application essay, and change key words for every college you apply to. But as Jeremy Spencer, former director of admissions at Alfred University advises,
“Applicants need to make sure the college name is correct everywhere it appears. The admissions officers will not be impressed if an applicant begins by discussing how much she really wants to go to Alfred University, but the last sentence says, “R.I.T. is the best choice for me.” Mail merge and global replace can’t be relied on 100% — applicants need to reread each application carefully, and they should have someone else proofread as well.”
In other words, make sure the admissions officer knows how much you value that college and what it offers, that you’ve thoughtfully considered the unique qualities of the school, and envision yourself there – not somewhere else. In a similar vein, it’s also probably a good idea to never refer to the college you’re applying to as your “safety school.” There are plenty of students who really want to be there.
The common thread here is that students should be respectful of the school, and focus on the future, not the past. Explain how you can contribute to the college while developing into an even better version of your already fabulous self!