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.
Keep it clean. A profane word is "not an accident, and we don't view it as an accident," says Debra Chermonte, dean of admissions and financial aid at Oberlin. "We view that as a deliberate attempt to be noticed." And not in a good way.
Schools H8 2 C texttalk. You don't want the admissions officer thinking, "I can see who runs up the texting bills in that household."
Explain easy courses. You took honors English through 11th grade, then slid down to a standard class. Colleges want rigor, not relaxation, so state the reason. "Burned out" is not so good. "Decided to focus on my real love—science" is much better.
Own up to bad behavior. Don't lie about school punishments. The school is dutybound to report them. And don't pretend your suspension for boozing it up at a football game was a one-time thing if you had two warnings beforehand. Your school will report that, too. What does matter is your take on the experience. "Accept responsibility; show contrition or lessons learned," suggests Simmons of Furman.
Optional essays aren't optional. Some students think that, since they live in a democracy and are very busy, they can opt to ignore the optional essay. Don't opt out, says Jacobs of SAR High School. This could be the place to explain bad grades or other glitches in your résumé.
Be electronically savvy. Colleges get calls from students in April. They say they submitted the application in December and never heard. Guess what: "They didn't click the final 'submit' button," says Wagner's Nowicki. And guess what else: April is typically too late to click.
Don't overcompensate by pressing "submit" seven times. Just send an E-mail after a week: "I want to make sure you received my application and all supporting documents."
Don't send it to email@example.com.
Do send it to the admissions staffer you met at one of your school's college nights or during a visit to the campus. Or ask for the name of the person handling your region.
Handwriting counts. A few students apply the old-fashioned way—with penmanship so sloppy the college can't read the E-mail address to ask for clarifications.
"Sometimes you get a handwritten application and it's clearly not the student who filled it out," adds Rodriguez of Pitzer College. "You wonder who's interested, parent or student?" One obvious tipoff is when the writing doesn't match the signature.
Don't assume your counselor will handle it. Students think high school counselors will handle any request from a college for missing information. They can't if they don't know about it in the first place. As Missy Sanchez, director of college counseling at Woodward Academy in College Park, Ga., puts it, "Sometimes counselors are included in the correspondence, sometimes not."
Don't be cocky. Marjorie Jacobs recalls a senior who figured he was a lock at two Ivy League schools. At School No. 1, his parents had a friend of a friend on the board. At School No. 2, an admissions counselor told him he'd be a good bet. Or at least, that's how he remembered the conversation.
Both schools said no. Part of the reason was that his board scores were more impressive than his grades. He could have addressed that in the "optional" essay, but he didn't feel he needed to write one (see above).
He did get into a state university but hadn't bothered to apply for the honors program. At the 11th hour, he was giving FedEx a lot of business.
Eschew artiness. College deans will surely groan/If your essay is a poem.
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