Make sure your authentic voice comes through, avoiding the appearance of what Ingrid Hayes, associate vice president of enrollment management and director of admissions at Spelman College, calls a "manufactured essay." Adds Delahunty: "Sometimes, we'll say, 'Didn't the mom write a beautiful application?' ... When you see the word heretofore, that's a clue." Far worse than parent-assisted essays are the ready-made ones available for around the same price as two tickets to the movies, a stratagem that will almost certainly go awry. Loyola New Orleans received the same essay—purchased online—from different applicants; they were, not surprisingly, denied. A variation on the same rule: Don't exaggerate. "Always, always, always be honest," says Missy Sanchez, director of college counseling at Woodward Academy in Atlanta. "Maybe you're going to get lucky, but the real professionals on the other side—they're going to ask questions."
Be sure the inner self you expose is one you're proud to claim. Poorly chosen words can make a bad impression. One applicant "wrote about an argument during which he broke a wall," says UNC's Farmer. "Rather than writing what he learned, he justified his behavior. ... He came across as shockingly incurious [and] seemed unteachable. You thought: He's going to spend four years making speeches."
Show a little love. Although most students apply to multiple colleges, showing genuine enthusiasm for each school on your list is such a must that colleges have a name for it: "demonstrated interest." No college wants to play second or fifth—or 15th—fiddle. "We want kids who want us," says Jean Jordan, dean of admission at Emory University. Tailor each application individually, with concrete examples of why you can see yourself there. "If you can take out Rice University and put in Vanderbilt and not make a difference," says Chris Muñoz, Rice's vice president for enrollment, "that's not going to work." As always, your presentation is crucial. "Writing 'I sat in Lorch Hall' doesn't help me feel like that student knows more about us," says Erica Sanders, director of recruitment and operations at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. "Saying 'Professor So-and-so's class helped me become even more interested'—or 'made me realize I really don't know what I want to pursue'—can make a difference." And do your homework. Claiming that you want to go to XYZ university for engineering when the school doesn't offer such a program will make your application memorable—but not in a good way.
Find your fans. If the application is your chance to talk about what makes you stand out, think of teacher recs as a way to reinforce your themes. The best choice isn't always the teacher whose class you aced, says Sanchez; better to pick the one who can describe what you're like as a person. "Ask if they can write you a strong recommendation," advises Seattle-based educational consultant Judy Mackenzie. "If the teacher hesitates, back off." Once you've got an advocate, type up bullet points summarizing your activities, community service, jobs—and a few pluses the teacher might not know about. And plan ahead. A rushed writer is rarely as persuasive as one who has had mulling time.
Depth beats breadth. While it might seem impressive to join six clubs and volunteer at a soup kitchen in your senior year, admissions officers can see through such a ploy. Besides, it's unnecessary, says Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington educational consultant and the coauthor of College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family. He notes: "It's important to be well lopsided rather than well rounded. That enables you to focus on what you're good at." Adds Caltech's Bischoff: "Applicants worry far too much—do they have the service and the leadership, and are they a musician, and, boy, if they could pick up a sport." Like Goodman, he believes in doing less but doing it well. But avoid being one-dimensional. "If your presentation is one-sided," says Liston, "start working on other sides. Show that you're not just that one thing." Anything you're passionate about has merit, including an after-school job.