The interview. Some interviews are informational, some are evaluative; some schools encourage them, others don't give them at all. Best advice: Take any face time offered unless you know you'll be putting your worst foot forward. Goodman's examples: If you got into serious trouble in high school and "the details are messy," or you are inclined to demonstrate disinterest because "your parents are making you apply to that college," skip it. Otherwise, one-on-ones are a way to underscore your desire to attend. Before you go, polish with practice: Rehearse your questions and talking points with an adult. Communicate not just your strengths but also your enthusiasm. Say clearly and politely, 'This is what I've achieved, and I'm proud of it,' " says Goodman. If your interview takes place on campus, schedule it toward the end of your visit. "After you've gone on the tour and met some kids," says Sanchez of Woodward Academy, "you've got something to talk about."
Full disclosure. Did your stellar academic record nose-dive one semester? Is there an obvious hole in your coursework? A suspension? The temptation is to hope it goes unnoticed, but it won't. The best approach is full disclosure. Add a letter explaining the situation. But for it to have a mitigating effect, Sanchez says, "you have to have recovered" from whatever tripped you up, accepted the consequences, and done what you could to make amends. Goodman says: "You've got to show us that you learned something." If you got suspended from school for drinking, for example, "and the punishment is 20 community service hours, do 50." And don't whine. If your grades took a tumble, don't expect admissions staff "to be moved by normal things that happen in life," says Muñoz. " 'My boyfriend broke up with me' is not going to cut it, nor is 'I overextended myself' or 'I got really involved with being the lead person for the prom.' "
My bad... There's you, the serious college applicant. Then there's the other you—the one with the E-mail address and voice-mail greeting that your friends find hilarious. Maybe you even put up those sassy beach pictures on Facebook. Admissions staffers—many of them fairly recent graduates themselves—sometimes check out social networking sites. So, if you're Jekyll and Hyde, clean up your split personality. "Students don't always realize the extreme public nature of the Web," says Gramling. "They say, 'Oh no, no, that's my site for me and my friends.' " Before posting on MySpace, consider: Are these photos you would show to your mom? If the answer's no, you probably don't want the admissions committee at your No. 1 college to get a peek, either.
A word to the wise. In the spirit of trying to see your child in the round, a small but growing number of schools are asking for recs from the 'rents. To talk about your son or daughter, advises Sanchez, "think about the three or four things people always brag to you about your child." Then, give examples to show how these characteristics come through: "Suzy is a great organizer. She used the whole senior class to help the lower school clean up the playground on Earth Day." And remark on whatever your child's passion may be: "He loves to play his guitar, and we're going to miss music in the house 24-7." Remember, your job is to present your vision by providing the facts, not to sell. So feel free to say, "She has the messiest room I've ever seen." "You can say stuff," Sanchez says. "They know they're not perfect. They're teenagers."
Remember to stay on the sidelines, cheering but not overwhelmingly. And no matter how anxious you get, resist calling the admissions office pretending to be your child, not realizing that your voice sounds more like a 40-year-old's than a 17-year-old's. Believe us. It happens.
Choose wisely. Unless social activism is one of the core values of the school you're applying to, "heartfelt cello playing trumps obligatory service work," says J. Leon Washington, dean of admissions and financial aid for Lehigh University.