College Applications Are Due Soon. Do These Things Before You Hit Submit!

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Doing these things will significantly increase your chances of getting into your dream school. You’ll also look better to your backup schools. A wider range of choices is always a good thing.

As an Educational Search Consultant who has worked with numerous students over the years, I’ve found some highly self-destructive tendencies that can wreck applicants’ chances of getting into the college or graduate program of their dreams. Most can be classed as not paying attention to detail. Being attentive to details like these will help you stand out — in a good way.

First, and most important: Do your research! Take at least an hour to read about every campus you’re thinking of applying to, even ones your family members or friends may attend. The facilities and services they use daily may be very different than the ones you’ll be in if you’re there. Unless your interests are exactly the same, their impressions as Aeronautical Engineering majors will almost surely be very unlike yours as an Art concentrator.

Researching the campus and the programs there will help you populate your personal statements with bits of specific information that will quickly show you care about making sure the school is right for you — and visa versa — to read up on it, and its faculty and students, before you apply. Putting this kind of information in your essay will help you focus your thinking on the school and your proposed major as well as making the admissions committee confident you really want to go there. Admissions committees like applicants who do their “due diligence.” Too many students don’t do — or show they’ve done — enough research on the campuses they’re applying to. Get a leg up on people who write a one-size-fits-all personal statement by actually knowing specifically why you want to go somewhere and proving it to the admissions committee.

Look online to see if your test scores and GPA are at least somewhat close to your proposed college’s medians for these things — at least most of the time. If your SAT is a 1300 and your GPA is a 3.0 with little variation over the last three years, you will almost surely be making a no-rewards donation to a school if its average SAT is a 1490 and median GPA is a 3.9. Obviously if there is something unusual about you that you think makes you attractive to the school, go ahead and apply there but doing this over and over is likelier to be a source of disappointment than a win. That said, if you like playing the lottery, go ahead and apply to as many super-reach schools as you like, but be ready for the fact that your odds of getting in may not be much better than you have to win your state’s million-dollar prize.

Second, don’t go over the word limits on your Common Application and campus supplementary essays. With today’s online forms, it’s easy to see when you’re over the limit. It’s even more obvious to the committee which will not like the fact that your essay just stops in the middle of a sentence. Yes, it does matter that something like this happens, so be sure your essay isn’t too long. Always keep the word limit in mind so you aren’t editing to get to the required length at the last minute, making your essay look like a rushed mess in doing so.

Third, write using your best grammar! Poor grammar is an application killer. Take the time to put your best possible grammar in your application materials. Whether your resume or your personal statement, make it a very high priority to take the time to create your materials with full attention to how you use words to express yourself. Use the grammar checker on your favorite word processor early and often and then get someone to look at what you’ve written. You can and should ask teachers and others to help with edits and general reviews.

Quality grammar makes your essays easier to read which, no matter how much readers may try not to be affected by it, is something bad grammar doesn’t do. Taking time on your grammar also makes you appear intelligent which is something admissions committees value, often to the detriment of students who might otherwise deserve to get in but whose first impression in writing wasn’t as strong as it could have been.

Fourth, have a quick and concise explanation for why you and the school you’re applying to fit each other. Make your logic obvious to the admissions committee. Applying for technical training when you plan to be an artist may make sense to you, but if it doesn’t make sense to the admissions committee you may well not get in. Remember, there will be lots of applicants whose reasons for wanting to go to a school are obvious: your reasons should be equally so. Effectively, it should take thirty seconds to explain to a stranger why you applied and how you and your potential campus should be great partners for the next several years. If your explanation is strong and well framed, it might even get you past the “issues” in your application that would normally take you out of the running.

Fifth, and somewhat of a larger version of number four, don’t leave the admissions committee asking, “Why did they check that major?” Be sure your essays show an interest in the potential major you checked on your application. That is to say, if your essays show you love chemistry but you checked electrical engineering, this is a flag to the admissions committee that you may not have thought your application through.

Admissions committees often don’t like applications that make them ask “why did they do that?” so be sure the topics you discuss in your essays and the areas of interest you marked on the application fit each other. If you don’t know what area to mark, talk with someone who can help you figure out what prospective major you should click. If you are interested in chemistry and now want to combine that with engineering, you should show this in your essays and then check an appropriate major box, likely Chemical Engineering or possibly Pharmaceutical Chemistry, for example.

If you write a lot about political history from the eighteenth century and check Political Science as your proposed major, committees may think you should have checked History, because their Political Science departments are generally focused on the study of current politics and International Relations. This may be enough to cause you to be overlooked on campuses where you are close, but not enough to overcome little “flaws” like this in your application. A little research can help you figure these things out so you check the right major for the campus you’re submitting an application to. If, once you’ve written your essays, you think you should check a different area of interest, go back and do that right away on your campus applications before you submit them and, if necessary, your Common Application.

For most campuses, it is perfectly okay to check “undecided” if that is where you are right now, if you don’t know which SPECIFIC major to check, or if your essays don’t show a clear focus in one or two areas of interest. If “undecided” seems like the right thing to click for you, make time to research how friendly your potential campuses are to applicants who click “undecided” for their major. Most will be just fine with it but your mileage may vary.

Sixth, be very sure your personal statement directly responds to the prompts you’ve been given. Don’t write an essay answering the question you want the campus to have asked you. Your essay should be written in response to the question they actually did ask you. Essays that don’t fit the prompt often make admissions committees unhappy. Obviously, if you get a very broad prompt like: “Tell us something unusual about yourself,” you have more freedom to be creative and describe how you leap tall buildings in a single bound than you might have otherwise.

However, if the prompt is something like: “Explain why a liberal arts education is pragmatic,” in most circumstances you probably don’t want to focus your essay on how TV programs you’ve watched have changed your life or spend the vast majority of your word limit saying why getting a narrowly focused degree will help you make lots of money. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t talk about these things in essays with prompts like this, but you do need to respond to the prompt sufficiently that, in this example, A) they know why you value the liberal arts tradition and B) they can see how you plan to integrate a focused course of study into the broad range of topics and opportunities for intellectual and personal growth liberal arts colleges work very hard to offer and badly want you to take full advantage of.

As of December 4, when this posted, there’s still time for you to help yourself find and get into a great school for you. For example, reading my three part “Questions You Should Ask Before Applying to College” series, can help you find campuses that fit you well. My essay on writing a strong personal statement can help you do your best in the essential job of presenting yourself to strangers who often have only a few minutes to learn “who you are” and decide to support your application as it moves through the rest of the admissions process.

I have published other essays on things like applying for scholarships and using “big data” in your college search that may also be helpful to you. I have others on closely related topics.

Want to know more about Dr. Matthew Weed? You can learn more about me on www.drmatthewweed.com and via @drmatthewweed on Instagram and Twitter.

Yale, Harvard, Princeton grad. Blind and diabetic kayaker, skier, and speaker. Advocating for everyone to care of themselves and others.