The 10 Dumbest Mistakes Applicants Always Make

September 13, 2012, 10:36am, Topics: mistakes, essays, grades, interest, preparedness

It always amazes us – and sometimes saddens us – to see so many great kids screw up their chances of admission at good colleges by making really dumb mistakes.  And they really are dumb and avoidable!  Here are the most common.

1.  Typos & Misspellings – Didn’t God invent spell-check?  Then how is it possible than man hasn’t figured out how to use it?   (OK, women too.)  But it is remarkable how many college applications include mis-spelled words and grammatical errors.
Unfortunately, admission officers admit that they often look for reasons to reject kids.  That’s because so many truly qualified students apply to most colleges.  So don’t give them a reason to reject you!

Take the time to have a fresh set of eyes proof every piece of the application!

2.  Unanswered questions – This really encompasses two mistakes: questions that are left blank; and answers that don’t really address the question asked.
The first is usually just carelessness.  You skip over a question thinking you’ll remember to come back and answer it later.  Perhaps you want to think about it more; or it may just be that you have to refer to a piece of information filed away somewhere.  And of course you forget.  Don’t be careless!

The second mistake – not really answering the question – is more telling.  For example, most applications ask you to list your extracurricular activities in the order of their importance to you.  Instead, many applicants just list them chronologically.  Or they list them in the order they think will impress the admissions committee.  Similarly, we see applications where students choose not to address problems like suspensions.  They don’t want to lie, so they think that simply ignoring the question is the safer approach.  Don’t do it!

Our friends at the New York tutoring firm A-List Education teach their kids a truly critical test-taking technique.  They call it RTFQ: Read the F***ing Question!  We echo that here: make sure you read and answer every question!

3.  Essay questions answered thoughtlessly – The essay is an incredible opportunity to say something positive and memorable about yourself.  Your grades are already pretty much set.  Your SAT or ACT scores are what they’re probably going to be.  (Yes, you might be able to take them again; but is worth it?)  And yet most kids waste the opportunity of the essay.
We know that many kids wait until the last minute to write their application essays.  That is only part of the problem.  Even those students who get started early – whether self-motivated or nagged to near-death by their parents – never leave enough time to re-write the essay.  I know this first-hand: writing is easy; re-writing is hard.  And essays deserve to be re-written several times.

Lot’s of kids think the objective is to write about something that will “impress” the admission office.  In part that is true.  But what impresses an admission officer is an essay that conveys something positive about the applicant; that allows the committee to get to know the kid just a bit from those few pieces of paper.  Whether the essay reinforces the numbers – the grades and SAT/ACT scores – or provides a different perspective, it is an opportunity not to be wasted.

4.  Essay questions answered boringly or pretentiously – When do kids finally get over their addiction to the run-on sentence?  90% of the essays  we’ve read suffer from the same malady: they are boring; pretentiously written; and/or include at least a half-dozen run-on sentences.  For some reason, kids think that long, convoluted sentences make them sound smarter.  They don’t.  They just make the essay harder to get through.
We suggest one rule and a test:

(a) If a sentence contains more than two commas, break it into two sentences.  You’ll be amazed how much clearer the writing will become.

(b) Remember that most admission officers will read about 50 sets of essays  in a single sitting – often in the evening with a glass wine (or something stronger) to get them through  the experience.  How tough will it be for that reader to get through your essay if yours is the 40th being read?  And will it be memorable?

5.  Essays “edited” by parents – Yes, parents should read, comment, and critique a kid’s essay.  But parents absolutely should not write it.  Lots of parents go over that line.  And if they think the admission officer is oblivious to the extent of a parent’s help, they are quite mistaken.
Admission officers are pretty savvy about recognizing a true 18-year-old’s voice.  Remember too that the teacher recommendations will be giving the admissions person a fuller picture of the applicant – including whether the kid is a gifted writer or someone unable to string together three sentences.   So don’t give the admissions committee a more-obvious-than-you-realize reason to reject a kid.

6.  Arrogance – A college is a community.  And most communities want nice people to be part of it.  A kid may be the smartest or most talented musician or gifted athlete – and colleges want that.  But they don’t want jerks or kids with chips on their shoulders or kids who think they’re entitled.
Re-read the essays.  Make amends with teachers.  Take the edge off.

7.  Grade-obsession – Colleges absolutely want scholars.  They want high academic achievers.  They often like nerds.  And they usually don’t mind grinds.  But they don’t really want kids who are grade-obsessed.  They want people who have a life and put grades into perspective.  So get a life – or at least pretend that you’re trying to.

8.  Failure to show interest in the college – An unbelievable number of kids blow their chances of admission by writing one generic essay – or answering a short question — and failing to realize that the answer is completely inappropriate for a particular college.  For example: lots of good students apply to several Ivy League colleges, hoping to get into one.  But more than a few kids will forget – in an essay or in an interview –that Columbia’s core curriculum is the polar opposite of Brown’s no-distribution-requirements “new curriculum.”   Similarly, they’ll forget that Penn is filled with pre-professional course options while Brown has virtually none.
Just as kids want to be loved, appreciated and accepted, so do colleges.  Show them the (individual) love.

9.  Not preparing for the interview – Interviews still count.  So kids really do need to prepare for them. They need to think about what they want to say about themselves; and about why they want to attend the particular school. And they need to practice.  Most kids don’t.  And when there are three or five qualified kids for every opening, the kid who has a good interview has a marginal advantage that can make the difference.

10.  Failing to provide a hook – Remember the most important fact about college admissions: good colleges are not looking for the well-rounded kid; they’re looking for the well-rounded class.  That means they need some scholars for every academic department; some athletes for every team; some committed, talented kids for ever extra-curricular club.
What “slot” are you going to fill?  And how are you going to convey to the committee that you are the kid who…fill in the blank – who satisfies their need.  What is your hook?

Most kids fail to make it easy for the college to say “yes, because ….”  Make it easy for them. Give the college a reason to slot you, like you, and remember you.  If you do, they’ll be more likely to admit you.