The Do’s and Don’ts of College Applications

Matt Brownell

September 1, 2011

Freak-Out Time

The beginning of a new school year brings mixed emotions for every student. But for high school seniors, this fall is especially nerve-racking, as it heralds the beginning of college admissions season.

That’s going to mean a lot of freaking out among students seeking admission to top-tier schools, who are understandably worried about grades, extracurricular activities, recommendations from teachers and the impending interviews.

But it’s possible to psych yourself out during this process, and not every aspect of it will make or break your application. Here are some things that graduating seniors shouldn’t panic about … and a few that they should.

Worry About Extracurriculars
There’s no doubt that extracurricular activities are an important part of the application process. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to cover your bases here. As a general rule, it’s better to show a big commitment to one or two activities than to try and be a jack-of-all-trades.

“[Not having enough extracurriculars] is rarely the problem,” says Bev Taylor, founder of college counseling service Ivy Coach. “The mistake is not shining in a specific extracurricular. Too many applicants are all over the place and unfocused.”

While senior year is probably too late to suddenly rise through the ranks of a student group and become president, you should still take the same focused approach at this point in the game.

“It’s never too late,” advises Chuck Hughes, a former Harvard admissions officer and president of admissions consulting firm Road to College. “Instead of being in five clubs and doing an hour a week, pick one and make a difference for 12 weeks. Have 12 weeks of legitimate involvement.”

…But Don’t Worry If You Chose Work
There is one big exception to the importance of doing extracurriculars: Students who instead chose to hold down part-time jobs.

“Colleges are not going to penalize a student who needs to work to support their family or pay for college – they just want to see that students are busy,” says Christiana Quinn, founder of college counseling company College Admission Advisors. “If that’s what a student is engaged in, then that’s what they should write about [on the application] instead of an extracurricular, and they should say what the money goes toward.”

With that said, she advises against completely forgoing extracurricular activities, so do your best to squeeze one in when you’re not working.

Worry About the Essay
Taylor says that the essay is where many applicants get tripped up. While obvious typos and poor writing are usually the biggest culprits, she says that delivering a polished-but-cliché essay often hurts many otherwise qualified applicants.

“Colleges see so many essays about students going to Africa to teach kids math,” she says. She likewise advises against any essay that only talks about your extracurricular activities. Instead, pick a small moment – a conversation in French class, a performance that resonated with you – and use it to tell the school something important about yourself.

… But Don’t Worry If You’re Not a Great Writer
We don’t mean to suggest that colleges don’t care about writing skills. They certainly do, and a very well-written essay can indeed put you over the top. But if writing isn’t your forte, and you’re pursuing a field where it’s less relevant, they may be more forgiving.

“Are writing skills as important for a student applying to an engineering program? Do they expect that student to be as good a writer as a history major? Probably not,” says Quinn.

She also adds that colleges will give a lot of leeway to students who speak English as a second language, or who speak a language other than English at home. The good news is that applications now allow you to indicate whether that’s the case, which should give the admissions officer a heads-up that your essay may not be quite as polished.

Worry About Good Recommendations
Taylor, the college counselor, says that it’s not enough to simply ask a teacher to write you a recommendation.

“A big mistake is not asking your guidance counselor whether a particular teacher writes a good letter,” she says. “The counselor may give you a few clues, like ‘Instead of asking Mrs. Smith, ask Mr. Miller.’”

Choosing a teacher who knows you well and has a reputation for writing good letters is key. Otherwise, you might wind up with a letter that simply reiterates your extra-curricular activities, rather than one that actually sheds some light on what you’re like in class.

… But Don’t Worry About Taking a Gap Year
Some seniors may balk at the prospect of finishing four years of high school and then immediately jumping into four years of college. As such, many consider taking a “gap year” during which they may find gainful employment, take a trip across Europe, or work on their writing.

But does taking a year off from education hurt you when it comes time to apply to college? Far from it.

“It’s probably going to help them, because students who do [take a gap year] are much more likely to stay in college – the attrition rate is lower,” says Quinn. “It gives them a sense of responsibility.”

Of course, not every gap year is created equal, and an admissions officer won’t be too impressed by an applicant who took the year off to play video games.

“If you’re going to take a gap year, do it with a goal in mind,” she says.

Worry About Following Instructions
Lisa Sohmer, director of college counseling at the Garden School in New York, says that one of the biggest mistakes an applicant can make is to not follow the instructions on a school’s application. Take SAT subject tests, for instance.

“Most colleges ask for two subject test scores, while a lot of colleges don’t want any,” she says. “The most important thing is to do what the college tells [you] to. You shouldn’t flood the college with test scores they didn’t ask for.”

When it comes to the essay, be sure you’re answering the question they’re asking. And make sure you turn it the application on time.

“Deadlines are really important,” she says. “Students are accustomed to being able to work a deadline with a teacher who knows them, but that doesn’t work here.

… But Don’t Worry About the Interview
I know, that sounds crazy – the interview is the make-or-break moment, isn’t it?

Not as much as you might think, says Hughes.

“With interviews, the biggest faux pas is nervousness,” he says. “Kids consider it the make-or-break moment.”

The truth, he says, is that the vast majority of interviews are held with the goal of giving the applicant more information about the school in hopes of getting him or her to matriculate once the formal offer of admission is made. According to Hughes, only a small percentage of interviewees are actually getting their admission decided in the interview.

That said, you shouldn’t go in unprepared. Know the school inside and out and be prepared to tell them exactly why you want to attend. And don’t tell your interviewer that it’s because of the beautiful campus or the great location. Living in New York City may be a big draw to students applying to Columbia University, but there are a thousand other applicants saying the same thing – not to mention several other colleges located in the city. Talk about something that makes that school special to you.

Don’t Worry About Freshman-Year Grades
You’ve got a great essay, a leadership role in a student group and a great essay. There’s just one problem: That C-minus you got in freshman chemistry sticks out like a sore thumb on your transcript.

While a single bad grade can indeed derail your chances at getting into a top-tier school, many colleges are willing to overlook your performance in ninth grade.

“If you have any less-than-stellar grades, colleges want to see that it was freshman year,” says Hughes. “Some schools like Stanford and the University of Michigan don’t even factor in freshman year when calculating your GPA.”