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 University. 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 more 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, "This kid spends way too much time on his cell."
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 any 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 the E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do send it to the admissions staffer you met at one of your high 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 that the college admissions office 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 handwriting doesn't match the signature on the application.
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 near Atlanta, puts it, "Sometimes counselors are included in the correspondence, sometimes not."