Go for depth. While it might seem impressive to have joined six clubs and volunteered 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, D.C., educational consultant and the coauthor of College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family. "It's important to be well lopsided rather than well rounded. That enables you to focus on what you're good at," he says. Adds Bischoff of Case Western: "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 and doing it well. But at the same time, you want to 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.
Take the interview. Some interviews are informational, some are evaluative; some schools encourage them, others don't give them at all. The best strategy is to take any face time offered unless you know you'll be putting your worst foot forward. If you got into serious trouble in high school and "the details are messy," or you are inclined to demonstrate lack of interest because "your parents are making you apply to that college," skip it, Goodman advises. 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. Make sure to 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."
Practice 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. "You've got to show us that you learned something," Goodman says. 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 Rice's 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.'"
Clean up your online act. 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 at Loyola. "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 parents. In the spirit of trying to see their applicants in the round, a small but growing number of schools are asking for recs from the 'rents. Sanchez advises parents to "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 elementary school clean up the playground on Earth Day." And remark on whatever the child's passion may be, for example, "He loves to play his guitar, and we're going to miss music in the house 24-7." Parents should remember that their job is to present their vision by providing the facts, not to sell. So a mother should feel free to note that her son "has the messiest room I've ever seen" when describing his brilliant organizational skills as a class officer. "You can say stuff," Sanchez says. "They know they're not perfect. They're teenagers."