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week's question from
Jeremy Baylor, Richmond, CA
What are some common red flags that admissions officers often find in college applications?
Two red flags are exaggerated extracurricular and over polished essays
Two common red flags are exaggerated extracurricular and over polished essays. The University of California has a ‘truth-in-application’ program, which randomly samples a ‘statistically significant’ number (around 1,000), to verify activity claims. Less than 1% of reviewed applications are cancelled. Regarding essays, if the quality of an essay far exceeds what might be expected from a candidate, the admissions office will access an applicant’s SAT essay for comparison purposes (which is readily available on-line). If the essay really appears DDI (‘daddy did it’), admissions might request from a student a graded paper from a recent English or history class.
#1 Red Flag on your College application
“How about adding the word _______ instead?” is what you hear shouted
across the dining room table. Is that really the word that sounds most
like an eager, college-bound 17-year old? Most students may not
realize it, but your voice can be heard by admissions officers as they
read your college application essays. If it’s not your word, not your
voice, then it is the #1 red flag for admissions officers. After
reading so many thousands of essays, admissions officers are keenly
aware of over-polished, adult-massaged, inauthentic essays. Don’t risk
it! Get noticed by being yourself.
Application Essays Can Serve As Red Flags to Admissions Officers
While admissions officers read your essays looking for reasons to admit you, what you write can also have a negative impact. If you make the classic mistake of saying “that’s why I want to go to College X” in an essay for College Y, you demonstrate carelessness and signal that your essay could apply to any school. Also, using poor grammar or having an essay filled with spelling errors shows laziness. Conversely, a perfectly formed essay by a student with low writing and reading scores on standardized tests may raise the suspicion that the writing was done by someone else.
Be careful, consistent, and honest throughout your application
The most serious missteps on college applications are contradictions that point toward dishonesty. For example, an impressive personal statement may not seem to come from the same person as sloppy short answers, bad grades in English, or poor test scores. The high school counselor may report disciplinary action that is not reported and explained by the applicant. Other red flags betray an applicant’s ignorance about a school, such as declaring a plan to major in a field it doesn't have, or the classic: expressing a desire to go to College “A” in an application for College “B.”
Blue Depicts Trust, Yellow Cheery And Powerful but Red Flags A No No!
With the thousands of applications admissions officers read, it is obvious if a student doesn’t read directions, fails to include all the required documents or submits their application without review. College essays have become a crucial part of the application and students must be careful to stay within the required word or character count as colleges like to see if thoughts can be communicated concisely and with clarity. Original writing is essential and it is easy to see when a parent is involved in the writing process. Some students mix up colleges and can send an essay intended for one college to another. Be methodical about your college process and you’ll get it right!
Check and ReCheck your work on your College Applications
Be very careful with your facts and statistics. Little mistakes, facts that don’t match up with your transcript or ACT/SAT testing companies, are annoying and thus, will cause a red flag for admission officers. Also, leaving blanks, not completing the year your mom graduated from College X, is unacceptable. On the application, one lists Activities. Don’t repeat the “list” in your essay(s). And for those Activities, when the application asks for a description of what you did in that activity, tell them, don’t just say, “Member of XX”. And finally, the application is not a text message, use capital letters where they belong and check your spelling.
Convince admissions officers that you are prepared for selective majors
It can be a problem when an applicant chooses a highly selective major but does not have the academic background to support that major. Colleges will look for high-level prerequisite courses and strong grades before they admit a student to a selective, competitive program. Students can also avoid red flags by participating in an internship, summer or after-school program that will allow them to investigate and demonstrate their interest in a special subject. And finally, it's a good idea for students to write a convincing and passionate essay about their interest in their major of choice.
Did you spell the name of the college correctly?
As foolish as that sounds, students sometimes incorrectly spell the name of the school where they are applying. Another error students make is to reuse an essay from another college's application. Schools know their cross app schools' questions and it is evident to them when you have reused an essay instead of doing one for their school and really answering the question they asked. Schools are skeptical when students overinflate the hours they put down for time spent on community service or other extracurricular activities.
Don’t Let “WOW” Turn Into “OW”
Rule #1: PROOFREAD! Don’t praise the virtues of College A and mistakenly mention College B. Spell-check isn’t foolproof, so look over your app to make sure it’s error-free. Admission officers can tell the difference between the musings of a 17-yr. old versus a 40-yr. old, so make sure your essays reflect your own “voice.” If you’ve had some “dips” in your grades, explain but don’t excuse them in the “additional information” section of your app. Also, be HONEST. If you’re extra-curricular commitments are 10 hours a week, don’t write 40; lastly, avoid an incomplete app…send test scores before deadlines hit.
Inconsistency can be the greatest “red flag” in an application
A student, who has strong test scores but poor grades or vice versa, sends a very clear message to a college admissions office; he might be perceived as a “bright underachiever” or a “grade grind” without real intellectual abilities. Having a consistent profile can be key to having a successful outcome. For a student, with a high GPA to have any D’s or C’s on their transcript would indeed be a “red flag” and might require an explanation. Additionally, if a student’s English grades and Critical Writing SAT scores are not in line with the quality of his or her essays that will certainly set some alarms off. At selective colleges, there is the expectation that a student would challenge herself to the extent of her abilities. So, a student with a high GPA but no or limited AP level classes might be seen as inconsistent and lacking in genuine achievement.
Key Red Flags to Avoid an Ultimate White Flag
Applications are not all the same. Even the Common Application is not common. The supplements all differ so make sure you never put the wrong college’s name in an essay. Make sure you proof-read everything from your family information to your grades to your activities to your essays. This is the one time in your life to make sure applications are perfect because admissions officers don’t have time for mistakes. Also some colleges ask you where else you are applying. They cannot request that information as that goes against basic best practices. So keep that info to yourself.
Kicking Back Senior Year
You have worked hard in high school and gotten good grades. As a senior, you are planning to kick back and have a good time. You may want to reconsider this plan as admissions officers are quick to notice a student who puts their academics on autopilot during the senior year. This will be a definite red flag. The curriculum in your senior year should show a deep commitment to rigorous course work. Pay special attention to courses that align with your college interests. For example, if you plan on majoring in English consider taking an extra course in English that is of special interest to you. Another good option, is to consider taking courses at the local community college. You are going to have to wait until after graduation for your rest and relaxation. Senior year is the time to show colleges that you are a serious student.
Make sure there are no unexplained discrepancies in your application
Discrepancies of all kinds are red flags: between English grades and scores and essays, between the number of hours at a job or an activity and reality, between expressed interest in an area of study and courses taken. I once worked with a student who insisted on applying to Nursing at a highly selective university, convinced that he would be a more successful candidate than if he expressed his real interest, pre-med. Since nothing in his extracurricular background confirmed his interest, his interviewer quickly asked why. Remember, admissions officers look at transcripts and recommendations with your application and any discrepancies are noticed.
Making sense of it all!
Admissions offices just want to make sense of your application. If they see an engineering major that struggles with math, they might wonder about the success of the applicant. Noting a sudden drop in grades, they might question what happened. Considering a suspension or expulsion, a college might be interested in the circumstances. Colleges understand that high school is a time of learning and personal growth. They don’t expect you to be perfect, but they do expect that if you’ve made a poor choice during your high school years, that you will be forthright about acknowledging your transgression.
Missing Deadlines, Incomplete Applications, Sloppiness and Are All Red Flags
Most problems on college applications occur because students fail to manage their time correctly. Students don’t plan enough time to get recommendations letters from teachers and end up missing the application deadline.
Some applications even arrive at the college without the proper forms: high school transcripts, test scores, and essays. On essays, students should remember to read the directions and make sure to answer the question or prompt.
Students should ALWAYS have someone trustworthy proofread their applications and essays. Spell check isn’t enough because it won’t catch some errors.
Not Showing Genuine Interest in a College
Besides the obvious red flags of applicants not being truthful and/or strongly exaggerating areas of their applications, another big red flag is an applicant not showing a genuine interest in a college. Admissions officers want students who genuinely want to attend their college and they should have specific reasons for this desire. Students should understand important factors of a college including the mission, vision, philosophy/principles as well as department and student life factors. It’s about finding the right fit and students need to articulate this fit in their applications.
Proofread everything … at least twice ...
Director of College Counseling, International & ESL Programs
One of most common red flags that can send an application to the “decline” pile is a poorly proofread application. Common grammar mistakes and poor spelling can give the impression of a carelessly compiled application and only a passing interest in the institution. If you are unsure of your own proofreading skills, ask someone to help you – a counselor or a teacher will be willing to help. And finally, make sure that you are talking about the right institution in your application. An earnest assurance that “Yale is my top choice” will not go over well on your Harvard application.
Proofread! Proofread! Proofread!
Three very common red flags that are always discovered by admission officers can be completely managed by proofreading – reading aloud – what you have typed or written. Students often leave sections of the application blank, or type a specific college name in their personal statements which they then submit to every college. And, of course, the most common red flag of all is a misspelled word that results from a homophonic Spell-checker!! (think: two, too, to).
Red flags generally appear as inconsistent trends in a student's application for admission
When we evaluate an application for admission, we're reading to get a complete picture of the student and her readiness to be successful in our educational community. Things in an application that don't make sense are red flags (a student with high aptitude but low grades, for example), as are trends that indicate a lack of interest in or ability for successful academic work (a student with lots of school absences, or a student with a a declining grade trend). Our goal is to identify students who have an interest in and an ability to be successful at our institution; factors that indicate to us a lack of interest in school or ability to perform college-level work are red flags.
Red Flags in Admissions
There are a number of things that stand out in a college application, and I don't mean in the good way. There are a number which are obvious, such as poor grammar or spelling in an essay, taking a weak senior year schedule, faint or backhanded praise in a rec letter, or declining grades. But some are not as obvious:
*Taking a first year of a second world language in your senior year instead of taking a fourth or greater year of a single language.
*Not addressing an extended absence, a suspension or other disciplinary action.
*Getting a poor grade in PE.
*Being late, for anything.
*Applying to too many colleges (there are a number of clues to this).
*Hinting at or referring to personal drug use.
*Comparing yourself to others.
*Being negative (or overly positive or bubbly).
*Trying to communicate in an application what you think they want to hear.
*Using senior year teachers when applying early decision.
The more competitive the college, the more admissions becomes a negative process, with much more time initially looking for easy reasons to deny an applicant. Luckily, 90 percent of colleges are looking for reasons to accept a student, so any of these are easily forgiven at the for majority of colleges.
Stay Strong Senior Year and Follow Directions!
From an academic standpoint, the two biggest red flags are downward-trending grades and an easy courseload senior year. We look for explanations, but either of those may render the student non-competitive. Other signals we notice are: not following directions, signs of too much parental help (choice of essay topic, vocabulary inconsistent with other writing samples, etc.) and more activities than could reasonably be handled by one person with any level of depth. Clues that a student has done no research into our school or really wants to go elsewhere (mention in a recommendation or essay of the desire to attend a different school) don't help!
The application assesses your achievements and your communication skills
In a competitive admissions environment, students need to watch out for making unforgivable application mistakes. These include spelling and grammatical errors on both the short answer and essay portions of applications, referencing in an essay another college you are applying to by mistake, and generally providing shallow and broad responses to short answer and essay questions. The college application is an opportunity for you to prove that you can communicate substantive ideas effectively and articulately. Making any of the red flag errors mentioned above undermines your chances of convincing colleges that you have mastered the art of college-level communication.
The pieces of YOU must fit together!
Think of your application as an architect would approach the design of a building; it must have a solid foundation and strong support beams in order for it to stand straight--or to stand at all. Likewise, a good application has information that holds well together and creates a strong, well-structured image of you; i.e. your interests, talents and accomplishments are supported by your recommendations, your essay, your grades, and your resume. Just as a building can fall in on itself if the structural pieces don't fit together well, red flags can pop up when the pieces of your application don't match up, which makes your application shaky and suspect; for example, you discuss a love of science, but haven't pursued advanced science courses; or, you wax rhapsodic about a love of animals, but you've never volunteered for an animal shelter or shadowed a veterinarian; or, you claim to have written a book that you're going to publish, but your English teacher's recommendation doesn't discuss your writing talent. In other words, make sure that the parts of your application have integrity--that they are all honest and sincere representations of you; if you do that, your application will stand tall and strong!
TYPOS IN COLLEGE APPLICATIONS: GOOD OR BAD?
Admissions officers are frequently horrified by the number of typos students fail to correct when
completing their colleges essays. Readers find typos annoying and distracting. Also it indicates
some negligence on the part of the writer. Spell check makes it easy for a student to correct most typos
and having an interested parent, teacher or friend read the essay prior to submission should eliminate many of
these errors. However, I have heard from admissions officers, that an occasional error in spelling
sometimes indicates that a student has undertaken his writing without assistance therefore enhancing his application.