(Photo by Juan Ramos)
By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.)
We keep saying it: Applying for college and obtaining financial aid has become an increasingly complex task. While the advent of the Common Application and the convenience of the internet have produced certain economies and efficiencies, the pace of activity has increased and the details have multiplied. Add to that the increasing diversification of academic programs and extracurricular activities, and with it the number of subjective elements taken into account by college admissions officers. Then factor in (dare we say it?) the erosion of behavioral norms throughout contemporary society, and the possibility for costly errors related to the application process expands greatly. Here are a few of the worst and most common:
The process of applying for college, seeking financial aid, and taking tests is one that most people don’t find especially pleasant, which makes the temptation to procrastinate powerful indeed. Add to this the fact that it’s very easy to let time get away from you amid your academic and extracurricular concerns, and the possibility of missing out on important opportunities is very real. A high percentage of students fall behind on taking their standardized tests, researching which colleges are best for them, exploring financial aid opportunities, lining up letters of recommendation, filling in forms, and writing essays. At worst, a missed deadline can doom your chances of getting what you want. At best, procrastination creates disorder once hurry-up time comes, which leads to mistakes and prevents applicants from performing the aforementioned tasks as well as they ought to.
2. Taking it easy during senior year
By senior year, you can almost see the finish line. If you’ve enjoyed high school, you also might be thinking in terms of maximizing the pleasure of the remaining time. Especially with colleges making early decisions about admissions, the temptation to let things slide can be considerable. Don’t give in. Colleges do in fact care what courses you take in your final year of high school, and how you perform in those courses. Make sure you run hard all the way to the finish.
3. Watered-down extracurricular activities
Most students by now have gotten the message that fortune generally does not favor the pure bookworm, that colleges look carefully at extracurricular activities and are seeking all-rounders. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go quite far enough. Though colleges do want to see balanced individuals, what many of them want most is to create balanced classes. Typically the more selective institutions will try to supply each class with a certain number of academic stars, athletes, artists, performers, political go-getters, etc. Being a standout at a particular thing raises your profile and gives admissions officers a means of classifying you in their quest for a balanced class. Doing a few things well and standing out at one or two can sometimes help you more than watering down your resume with so many activities that each of them seems insignificant.
4. Aiming too high—or too low
It’s essential to make a realistic assessment of your abilities and potential. Don’t sell yourself short and assume on that basis that you can’t get into the college of your dreams, but do ask yourself and your trusted advisers seriously if you truly meet the criteria a particular college is looking for. All too often, students and/or their parents have their hearts set on admission to schools that eventually reject them for whatever reason, without having an adequate Plan B in place. Maybe you can’t get into Harvard, and maybe you realize that you shouldn’t even apply there, but there are countless alternatives in the vast space between Harvard and a low-quality college whose main virtue is that it will admit those who have no other hope or who have made no other provisions for themselves.
5. Going for the wrong culture
Overall prestige, or strength in a particular subject, is obviously an important consideration in choosing colleges to apply for, but it’s important not to waste time, money, and effort pursuing admission to a big-name college where you will be miserable and possibly not be able to go the distance if it does admit you. If you tend to be shy, an academic culture built around freewheeling seminars might not be right for you. If you need structure, a bohemian environment is likely to make you unhappy and detract from your performance. If you value your privacy, a college that emphasizes communal living probably isn’t a good fit. High school students generally don’t know quite who they are in many respects, but by the time you apply for college you should have some realistic idea of your strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits. It’s important to know when to challenge those and when to go along with them. Choose carefully and don’t try to be something you’re not, even if it sounds cool. Words to live by…
6. Failure to pay attention to detail
High school and college are supposed to be preparation for Life, and although the application process isn’t necessarily designed with that idea in mind, it can actually be more of an authentic adult challenge than any curriculum. Applying for college and financial aid involves paying constant attention to myriad details regarding deadlines, names, titles, dates, contact information, writing assignments, and supporting documents. Admissions officers are busy people, and strict adherence to procedure allows them to manage the load. And then there are the computers that might spit out anything not formatted just so. Read all instructions with great care.
7. Lack of demonstrated interest in a particular school
The Common Application is a relatively recent innovation that has brought welcome relief from the onerous chore of grinding out a separate application for each school that interests you. Nonetheless there may still be times when you will be asked for an opinion or information specific to a particular institution or program. In that case, make sure that’s what you provide. It’s one thing to choose prompt number seven in the Common App and submit an example of your academic work instead of responding to a specialized essay prompt–a legitimate option that works well for many students–and quite another to attempt a one-size-fits-all approach to explaining why you want to attend different colleges. A surprising number of students believe that admissions officers will not notice or not care that they display no knowledge of a particular school’s specific features and advantages. This is a mistake. What is especially egregious is when you decide to plug different names into the same boilerplate spiel and then forget to do so. If you tell Boston College why you want to go to Virginia Tech, the folks at Boston College will probably decide that Tech would suit you just fine. Go, Hokies!
8. A weak or inappropriate essay
We have covered this topic extensively in another post (Getting to Know You: the College Admissions Essay, June 8, 2018). Most importantly, make sure it is truly your own work and that it doesn’t read like something you’ve re-purposed awkwardly and shoehorned into place. As noted above, prompt number seven in the Common App can be a wise choice, but in other contexts recycling can be hazardous to the health of your application. If you’re supposed to respond to a particular prompt, make sure you do, instead of trying to take something you’ve already written on a different subject and fiddle it into position.
9. Handling the interview poorly
We also have treated this subject at length elsewhere (Cleaning Up Well: Appearance, Speech, and Demeanor at College Interview Time, June 7, 2018). Most colleges are unable to interview all applicants. Accept any invitation to interview, and rest assured that the interview could matter a great deal. This is your chance to step out of the realm of abstraction and let the college form a personal impression. The guidelines we have provided are not to be taken lightly. Leave the gum, fishnet stockings, freaky jewelry, and “uptalk” at home.
10. Inappropriate social media behavior or contact details
Many a career has been ruined by misbehavior on social media, and the same is true of college applications, so it’s a good plan to resist those bathroom selfies, obscene gestures, and profane rants. The wrong email address can also be highly detrimental to your image. Make sure your address is mature and professional, very basic. Having email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org among your contact details does send a message, but not the one any sane college applicant would want to send.
No one expects you to be perfect in your quest to gain admission to the college of your choice, but even a little bit of prudence and common sense can go a long way toward helping you control your own destiny as much as possible. If you resolve not to cut corners anywhere, and to try to put yourself in the place of the decision-makers on the other end of the process, you can eliminate the most common errors.
The Coaching Educator has nearly a decade of experience helping students and their families start the college application and financial aid process smoothly and keep hitting their marks through all the challenges and complications that arise. We can help you target the most appropriate colleges, select the right major, choose the optimal courses, obtain references, prepare for essays and interviews, and secure the financial aid to bring your plans to fruition. To learn more about how we can keep you on schedule and on message, contact us today for a free consultation.
Paul Culp has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University. A former journalist, he has also taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level, and now writes for The Coaching Educator team.