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Students Ask, College Counselors Answer

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This week's question from Elizabeth R., Omaha, NE asks:

In your experience, what are three of the most significant and avoidable mistakes students make throughout the admissions process?

3 significant and avoidable mistakes

Jane Gabin | College Counselor
1) Shopping by "brand name."  Some students (and their parents) are way too focused on the prestige of the college name, rather than whether the college is a suitable intellectual and social match. 2)  Under-utilizing the opportunity offered by the "personal statement." Admissions officers would rather hear about a typical day in an applicant's life or how a quirky relative affected the student, than about the applicant's plans to stop global warming. 3)  Resume-building instead of enjoying a healthy balance of activities. If the fulfilling activities also look impressive, that's great!  But simply piling up activities with college in mind cheats many students of enjoying their high school years.

Avoid mistakes by keeping priorities straight

Jane Shropshire | Founder
This applies to the college search, where students and parents sometimes fall into the trap of chasing prestige rather than a great fit in both personal and academic terms.  Losing sight of priorities can lead students to choose activities that they perceive to be important for admissions, while making no sense for them personally. It can also muck up the application process, leading a student to send an application to Bowdoin conveying great enthusiasm for Cornell. By letting your priorities guide you, you’ll be the student who knows which of the two is the right match and why.  You’ll ably demonstrate your interest to the colleges receiving your applications. 

Avoid these mistakes, easy as 1,2,3!

Lynda McGee | College Counselor
1) Not learning all the parts of the search and selection process. Too many teens believe that the information provided by the guidance department is all they need to know to choose the colleges that are the best matches-not so!  Find out the big picture by reading books, visiting websites, talking with professionals too. 2) Not knowing one's self. Teens need to explore their strengths, challenges, learning and social needs, goals and preferences in college campuses/experiences. 3) Getting lackluster letters of recommendation from teachers. Letter writers need to know: why the particular colleges have been chosen, and in what ways the student is a good match for those schools.

Don't forget your online identity

Jolyn Brand | Founder & Director
One of my past clients looked great on paper and I thought he was a shoe-in for his selective colleges. Then he "liked" my Facebook Business page and I clicked on his account. Wow! College admissions officers may check applicants' online identities, meaning their myspace and facebook accounts. Students should delete anything that they wouldn't want their mom or a prospective college to see, whether that be sarcastic jokes, bad pics, or political cartoons. Be cognizant of what your “friends” post of your wall and check tagged pictures to make sure you want to be identified. Just remember to present the best ‘you’ in the application and online.

Don't let these mistakes get you down

Lana Klene | Counselor
Seniors have never been through the college search and admission process, so it should not be a surprise to learn that many of them make mistakes along this journey. The biggest mistake I see is procrastination, which leads to stiffer competition in the admission cycle and loss of potential scholarship money. Fear of rejection also plays a role in this. A second common mistake is putting your heart into just one college. You should view each school that you apply to as a great one for you! Finally, too few students spend the time to visit schools before they make decisions about applying. This powerful tool could save lots of students from indecision agony.

Don't procrastinate and respect the details

Peter Brass | Director of Student Services & University Advisor
Procrastination has accelerated over the past decade as the electronic age has empowered applicants to leave everything to the last minute. Students don't allow for time zone differences, Internet service outages, server crashes because of the sheer volume of last minute applications, or the failure of their own computer at the last and critical moment. At the same time, a lack of attention to detail such as spelling and grammar or the all too familiar application to one college but mistakenly identifying the name of another college the student is applying to is just sloppy and inexcusable.

Don't quit the race until you cross the finish line

Gael Casner | Founder
Sarah worked hard through junior year of high school, then “rewarded” herself by signing up for a less rigorous senior year schedule.  She was very disappointed when some of the competitive colleges rejected her.  “Too light a senior load,” they said.  Mark, on the other hand, was on cloud nine when his first choice college accepted him in the early action round.  Unfortunately, he celebrated a bit too hard during spring, allowing his grades to slip well past what the colleges expected.  “After all, I’m already in, right?”  He was shocked to receive a letter withdrawing the acceptance.  It’s easy to avoid these serious mistakes …just don’t give up before the finish line.

Don’t make these common mistakes when applying to college

Todd Johnson | Founder
1) Your personal essay needs to tell the admissions office something about you they don’t otherwise find in the application. Give them some insight into why you are the person you are. 2) Don’t recycle “why do you want to attend college X” essays. Writing a generic essay for this prompt is very obvious to even first time readers. Do your homework and tell them why their college is really a good choice for you. 3) Submit the application at least 2 weeks before the deadline. Computer systems often crash when you wait to the last minute. Trust me on this.

Fit, follow-up and folly

Alison Almasian | Director of Admissions
FIT: Students must do the self-analysis necessary to determine what kind of school will be the best match for them. Too often, they are swayed by the opinions of others – parents, friends, rankings, etc. FOLLOW UP: Many students assume that their documents have arrived at admissions offices. If they have not received confirmation that their file is complete, they should contact the school to verify. FOLLY: Too many students believe that “senioritis” is a privilege/right. It is not. Schools will be reviewing final senior grades and reserve the right to revoke admission if there are significant declines in performance.

Getting to know you: getting to know about you

Rebecca Joseph | Executive Director & Founder
On her campus tour, Lisa saw that her tour guide was not wearing any shoes—neither were hundreds of other kids on campus—as the students were sharing their passion for a particular injustice in the world. Lisa asked more questions on the tour and during her interview and later back home, wrote about amazing connections between her and the campus. Students often don’t spend enough time getting to know the colleges on their lists. Many colleges count demonstrated interest and even have college specific questions on their college applications. Students need to learn much as possible about colleges. Lisa did and the college agreed.

Have a counselor review your app and don't use nicknames

Bob Tillman | Director of College Placement
Rarely have I reviewed an application where I have not found some mistakes: inaccuracies, misinformation, incompleteness, or misspellings. So, students can profit by asking a counselor to review their application before they press the submit button. Students can also save themselves and their counselor a lot of trouble by using their formal name on all applications and on ACT/SAT registrations. Every year I deal with colleges that have created multiple files for the same student. One file for Jimmy has the application and test scores in, the other for James has the transcript in. Using nicknames creates problems since the school transcript is always with the student's formal name.

Keep your eye on the prize!

Marilyn Morrison | Founder
Too many students wait until senior year to realize the rewards that a rigorous curriculum and top grades will bring, or harbor the false belief that high SAT or ACT scores will outweigh years of mediocre academic performance. Another mistake is choosing an extracurricular activity simply because you think it will look good on your college application, or assuming that you need to be involved in a long list of clubs and activities. Instead, pick one or two that are meaningful to you—ones that build on your unique interests and allow you to demonstrate commitment, accomplishment, and leadership.

Know yourself and take time to build a strong application

George Mills | Vice President for Enrollment
Three easy steps lead to reducing mistakes in the college application process: 1) starting the application process early enough to complete it with time to review and edit your responses 2) taking the right courses to prepare for college admission and 3) knowing oneself.  Students who don’t have a basic understanding of their strengths, weaknesses and interests have difficulty communicating themselves to college admission officers. Not taking the right courses in high school will lead to foreclosing on options for a college experience. Finally, shoehorning the completion of a college application into too little time to complete it, is a sure recipe for failure.

Most application mistakes are preventable and usually due to procrastination!

Megan Dorsey | SAT Prep & College Advisor
Pay attention and stay organized so you don’t fall into these traps:  1) Failing to research schools adequately. I’ve known students who arrived on campus to find the university doesn’t offer their desired major or doesn’t have a good campus life. 2) Missing deadlines, forgetting essential items, or failing to confirm receipt of all application elements. One senior who was admitted to an Ivy League school came to me frustrated because it was the only university that hadn’t offered him financial aid. The university told me why: He had never submitted any of the required paperwork. 3) Making sloppy errors. Misunderstood questions, poorly written essays, and typos all will undermine your application.

Most mistakes are conceptual, not mechanical

Jon Boeckenstedt | Associate Vice President for Enrollment Policy & Planning
By far, the biggest mistake is the belief the “perfect” college exists.  Let’s be clear: No place is perfect, but fortunately, there are almost certainly lots of places where any particular student will get a great education in a setting where she feels comfortable. The second mistake is ruling out a college based on costs: apply without regard to cost. The third mistake is choosing a college for a fairly minor reason: it rained during my campus visit; I didn’t like the tour guide; our cab driver said people in town don’t like the college.  Make sure you consider the whole of the institution, not small parts of it.

not writing optional essay, falling prey to sticker shock, not visiting campus

Many students pass up the opportunity to submit optional essays without realizing they give an admissions representative a better sense of who they are and the diversity of experience they can bring to campus. Students should also not get scared off by the “sticker shock” of an institution’s tuition, but keep in mind that colleges with expensive price tags often have large endowments to match, and can thus offer competitive financial aid. Lastly, visit campus! If you plan to spend four years of your life there, it’s worth making sure that it feels like a good fit.

Pay attention to the details

Jill Madenberg | Independent Educational Consultant
Following directions is critical.  Whether it's knowing which standardized test a school requires, keeping up with deadlines or reviewing your essay until it is 100% grammatically correct.  All of these sound so obvious.  But, you would be surprised how often students ignore these details.  Colleges want to get to know you through the admissions process.  They will give you plenty of directions and in addition to looking at your quantitative grades and scores; they want to see how you will follow their guidelines.

Pay attention to what is important to you personally

Steve Thomas | Director of Admissions
Prospective students will sometimes choose to apply to a school because they think others will think that is a good match for them (teachers, parents etc.). In so doing, students run a considerable risk of also pretending to be someone they are not throughout the entire process. Finally, students often don't listen to the professional advice they receive from their college counselors because it is not what they want to hear.  If one can entirely be oneself in the process, take good advice from experienced professionals, and choose colleges and universities based on strong personal preference, one will avoid the most common pitfalls which can derail a successful selection process.

Pocrastination, missed deadlines, and proofreading

James Long | Educational Consultant
Procrastination and missed deadlines, combined with the failure to proofread are the most common errors students make when completing applications. A student’s application is one item that can have a significant impact on their future and deserves quality time and review, yet I always hear students comment to their friends that they “…need to start their application,” and the deadline is less than a week away. Any item that requires proofreading needs to be set aside for a period of time and allowed to rest and then looked at with a fresh mind. If the item is proofread immediately after writing it, the brain tends to see what should be there rather than what is actually there.

Procrastination is a big hurdle for many teenagers! 

Robin Groelle | Founder
College Planning takes time and each step along the way requires some forethought. Those that are methodical and organized will find the senior year much more enjoyable. Starting early in high school by getting involved in activities that are meaningful and fun and taking challenging course will pave the way for supportive teacher recommendations, insightful college essays, and a resume of activities that resonates your accomplishments. Another pitfall to avoid:  Applying to colleges that are all too competitive or not challenging enough.  Take an honest appraisal of your intellectual accomplishments and be sure that your college list reflects a range that will offer you choices in where to attend in the end (hopefully along with some merit scholarships).

Procrastination, presumptuousness, and passivity often doom college applications

Craig Meister | President
The three Ps often spoil students’ college applications.  Procrastination: students who wait until the last minute and only spend a couple days—if that—on their application essays and short answer responses regularly produce far weaker applications, and thus receive a disproportionate percentage of the rejection letters. Presumptuousness: Students who approach their essays and short answer responses like they do an English paper are displaying overconfidence because writing for the college application requires a completely different style of writing than for a school assignment.  Passivity: Finally, meekness when communicating about extracurricular accomplishments is another common recipe for rejection.

Proofread, proofread, and proofread again

Carol Stack | Principal
Much like the rules for hair care in the movie Legally Blonde, there are three simple and finite rules that will keep you from making the most egregious application mistakes: Proofread, proofread and proofread again!  You do not want your essay to stand out because of an outrageous spelling error or a naïve double entendre. Before any item is matched with an envelope, email address or upload site, double and triple check that you are sending the right item to the right college. Nothing makes you look more disorganized and silly than sending an essay about why you love Carol Stack’s College to Faber College. Deadlines do matter! 

Putting it off, missing the mark and not checking in

Scott Hamilton | Founder
Procrastination is an application killer. Many successful students who have been able to get by with all-nighters and last minute work find themselves with less college options after approaching the admissions process the same way. Not taking the time to thoughtfully brainstorm personal and specific essay topics, and failing to do the homework needed to persuasively answer the "Why us?" question many colleges ask, can tip the scales in the wrong direction. Finally, as other electronic forms of communication have come to dominate the lives of teenagers, missing important information and deadlines due to the lack of checking email regularly has become more of an issue.

Spell chick doesn't check everything

Betsy Morgan | Founder
Proofread! You hear it all the time, but it really is important. Have several sets of eyes look over your application and if that is not possible, use the old editor’s trick of reading the essay backwards. It works! Avoid find and replace! It is a recipe for disaster. Besides, if you can simply change the name of the activity or name of the college, you aren’t being specific enough. Be yourself! If any piece of your application does not accurately represent who you are, does not have your voice, or does not “fit” together, you run the risk of confusing the admissions personnel who don’t have a lot of time to make a decision on your application.

Summer break = essay time

Robyn Moreth | Independent Educational Consultant
1) The biggest mistake is not taking advantage of the summer before senior year to get a head start on writing the essays. Although the Common App is not available until August 1, the short response and main essay topics are known prior to this. 2) Another mistake is not visiting a college that is at the top of the list. It makes answering the frequent supplement question; “Why College X?” very difficult if the student has never set foot on campus. 3) Procrastination in scheduling the interview is a third mistake. Students who do not schedule in a timely fashion run the risk of not having the opportunity for an interview.

The devil is in the details

Nancy Griesemer | Founder
How you present yourself is a key factor in how a college will react to your application.  If the information you submit is sloppy, late, or unresponsive, the reader might naturally conclude you’re sloppy, late, and usually unresponsive.  These aren’t particularly attractive traits, and none will further college aspirations.  So to keep your application out of the reject pile, avoid the kinds of mistakes that make you look bad.  Submit a document that reflects the quality of your work—edit, proofread, and print preview.  Make sure you’re responsive to requirements—test scores, transcripts, supplements, and recommendations.  And watch deadlines—application, scholarship, and financial aid.  Dog those details and present your best self.

Three mistakes to avoid with your college admissions essay

Susie Watts | College Consultant
1) Writing a college essay without brainstorming some possible topics first; choosing a topic that doesn't reveal enough about you. 2) Thinking you can whip off a good essay in a day or so and not taking the time to perfect it.  College essays take thought and the summer is a great time to start them. 3) Believing that rough drafts are not important and sending an essay in with obvious grammatical errors.  Essays should be read over and checked to make sure each word counts.

Time management is critical

Whitney Bruce | Independent College Counselor
A student approached me in mid-December, with ill-formed plans to complete several applications in the week before he left for a December vacation. His poor time management created problems for others as his teachers were unenthused by his last-minute request for recommendations. He wrote only one or two drafts of his essays. Ultimately, he tried to submit his applications in the hours leading up to the deadline from half a world away. His lack of planning led to frustration and meant that in some cases, his applications did not meet the deadlines and were not even reviewed for admission.  

Time management, proper planning, and utilizing professional resources

Marjorie Goode | Founder
(1) Misunderstanding a college’s perception of “taking the most challenging courses.” Sometimes students overextend themselves with course selections, not realizing they may not be adequately prepared for the curriculum. (2) Accepting advice from too many sources. I always tell my counselees and clients that the information they receive from people not professionally associated with college admissions is meant to be delivered with good intentions. However, too much can overload the circuits of a high school student (3) Procrastination!! Time management is essential in the college admission process. Deadlines must be met and the quality of a rushed essay is easily detected. Rough drafts may take time but they are necessary for both paper and online applications.

Top 3 tips for a strong recommendation letter

Pamela Ellis | Founder
Students must view their application as a portfolio that consists of several points of data, which create a complete profile! Letters of recommendation provide important data that can either help or hurt a candidate. If you want a strong recommendation letter that complements your application package, avoid common mistakes by following these 3 top tips: 1) Ask a teacher that has a personal story to share about you (it’s OK if you remind them!); 2) Ask a teacher who writes well; and 3) Provide enough lead time for your choice to complete a strong recommendation on time!

Watch out for common errors in your application

Jeannie Borin | Founder & President
What seems to be the most obvious are common things students overlook during their college admissions process. I have seen the strangest email addresses that friends may think are just right. Students should use their name as an email address when communicating with college representatives. This may make them more familiar and also expresses interest in that college. Another mistake I encounter is that students are often set on just applying to specific selective colleges. It is important to research admission requirements and create a balanced list that includes colleges where students are likely to gain acceptance. Applying too close to deadlines is stressful and makes it more difficult to prepare well thought out applications. My advice –meet and beat all deadlines!



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