Rocketing Past the Application Blunders

Deans and college counselors have seen it all. Here's what to do if you want them to take you seriously

By + More

Student goal: Admission to Oberlin College. Strategy: Show some essay love for Julie Taymor, the gifted alumna who dazzled Broadway with The Lion King. Problem: Instead of Lion King, the applicant types in Loin King.

If you're what's known as a "one-read admit"—great grades, test scores, and activities—you can afford a misstep or two. If you're a "one-read deny," proofreading won't save you.

As for the rest of you, you're on the bubble—and you'll deflate your chances with typos, bad etiquette, and other application errors. How can you avoid self-sabotage? High school students, gird your lions—better make that loins—and read on.

Sanitize your E-mail address. Spicychick@gmail.com, I'm talking to you. Devise a new handle. And don't follow the example of the student who came up with "UGafan" and used it to apply to Furman University.

If you're feeling creative, Kristin Tichenor, vice president for enrollment management at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, proposes dyingtogotowpi. "We absolutely adore shameless adoration," she says.

But really, you can't go wrong with your name. It helps colleges find your records. And you do need to keep up with incoming mail from colleges to which you've applied: Weekly check-in, at minimum, is wise.

Keep nicknames private. Some schools ask what you'd like to be called. The idea is if your name is James and you go by Jim, you'll be more comfortable if the school calls you Jim. The idea is not "You can call me Peanut," laughs Leigh-Ann Nowicki, dean of admissions at Wagner College.

P.S.: In case you're wondering, your Facebook page is usually private—unless you've "friended" a friendly recruiter. But Tichenor of WPI says, "We generally frown upon that kind of interaction in the profession. We understand that Facebook is reserved for students on a recreational basis. We just don't want to know."

Follow directions. If a school says it wants letters of recommendation from 11th- and 12th-grade teachers only, here is what it means: We want letters only from 11th- and 12th-grade teachers.

Recruit enthusiastic recommenders. If a teacher seems lukewarm about writing a letter, make a polite excuse, suggests Marjorie Jacobs, director of college counseling at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y. Then find one who will sing your praises with gusto.

Extracurrics: Don't overdo it. The more, the warier. "If you add all the hours they say they're doing, you wonder how the hell are they going to school," says Arnaldo Rodriguez, vice president for admissions and financial aid at Pitzer College. "It becomes suspect at that point. Are they careless or just trying to pad the application to make themselves look more committed than they really are?"

Shun jargon. You're president of the LLDC club and a Tiger Paws staff member? LLDC does not compute. As for Tiger Paws, are you an animal activist or a staffer for the literary magazine?

Explain changes. You bailed out of the crew team. Is that because you're lazy? Just rowing to impress colleges? Or did you quit because the way the coach berated a team member was such a turnoff? Find a way to make that point in your essay or an accompanying letter.

Know thy college. In an interview or essay, say something specific about the school: a noted professor who teaches a subject you're interested in, internship opportunities at a neighboring medical center, a comment about the honor code. 

Keep schools straight. It's a classic: A student tackles the essay "Why State U?" by concluding, "And so, I would be proud to be a member of the class of 2014 at Podunk College."

"It's one of the [mistakes] we see most often," says Laura Simmons, associate director of admissions at Furman. It won't automatically put you out of the running, but it makes you seem careless. "It's like a check minus," says Simmons. "Where I can see it really doom a student is in scholarship competition. Stakes are higher, and there are more students of their quality or better."

Think twice before tugging at heartstrings. You're not going to be admitted because a friend committed suicide, a parent lost a job, or a sibling died of cancer. Unless you can use a sorrowful story to reveal something about yourself, it is a tale best not told.