Ten Stupid Ways to Ruin Your College Application

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2007; 9:36 AM

With just two weeks before the deadline for early action and early decision applications to many colleges, I offer these examples of wrong-headedness in the admissions process. Many were sent to me by Joseph M. Connolly, a guidance counselor at New Oxford High School in New Oxford, Pa. , who has seen much on the job and in postings from counselors and admissions officers to the National Association for College Admission Counseling Web site. Members of my washingtonpost.com discussion group "Admissions 101" also contributed.

Remember, these are things you should NOT do.

1. Rack up as many extra points as you can for "expressed interest" in your favorite colleges. This particular obsession was new to me. Connolly has encountered applicants who have inundated admissions offices with voicemails, e-mails and snail mail because they have heard that colleges want concrete indications of interest and don't think you can overdo it. Believe me, you can. "There is a fine line between showing adequate interest in the school and stalking," Connolly said. "Unsolicited cakes, pies, cookies, sneakers (the old 'one foot in the door' trick), a life-sized statue of you holding an acceptance letter, or a painstakingly detailed scale model of the campus clock tower will not make up for a lackluster academic record." When colleges look for "expressed interest," that means they hope that you will show up when their college reps visit your school, that you will visit their campuses and sign the visitor logs in their admissions offices and that you will get your application in on time with no loose ends. If you have a legitimate question, they are happy to receive your e-mail or telephone call. Doing more than that just makes you look desperate, and a little scary.

2. Don't worry about your postings on social networking sites -- college admissions officers understand your need for individual expression and will probably never look at them. I know, I know. What you put on Facebook or Myspace is your private business. College officials appear to share that view. They say they do not make a habit of looking up their applicants. But there are enough exceptions to make me think care should be taken when posting photos from your last rollicking beach party. Not everybody loves you. Those who don't could send anonymous notes to your first-choice school suggesting it inspect a certain Web site. There are no rules that say they can't.

3. When sending messages to admissions officers, the wilder the e-mail address the better. Here we are again with one of those First Amendment issues, but Connolly thinks -- and I agree -- that imsupersexy@[ fill in the blank].com is not a good choice. He says if you have not updated your personal address since the fifth grade, this might be a good time to do so.

4. College interviewers like jokes and exaggerations, so let fire. Dan4, a parent posting on Admissions 101, said his son blew his interview for the University of Pennsylvania by letting his sense of humor go too far. He told the interviewer, a woman, that if he got into Penn, he hoped to dump his dirty clothes on his aunt in Philadelphia since one of his personal goals was "to never have to do his own laundry." I think this is a funny line. But the interviewer didn't. Dan4's son didn't realize how much this had hurt him until a cousin the same age, with the same last name, met with another Penn interviewer who asked pointedly if they were related and if he did his own laundry. The interviewer wasn't smiling.

5. Load up your application with as many activities as you can think of and don't mention anything that makes you look bad. Connolly said one student put on his application "I spend time lifting weights to improve my abs." This is dumb. Colleges want to see two activities to which you have applied much energy and passion. They don't want to see a lot of little stuff. The flip side of this stupid move, suppressing embarrassing or disturbing information, is trickier. One Admissions 101 participant who works at a selective college said one applicant had his acceptance letter revoked when the college confirmed an anonymous tip that a teacher had caught him plagiarizing an assignment during his junior year of high school. The poster said it was not the original offense that did in the applicant, but the fact that he had not disclosed it in his application. An Admissions 101 participant who tutors college-bound high-schoolers pointed out, however, that if the unfortunate applicant had disclosed the plagiarism, he most likely would not have been accepted anyway. I think if an applicant has done something bad enough to threaten his chances, and anyone else knows about it, it is best to disclose it, explain it and, if necessary, apologize for it. If the black mark is indelible, all is not lost. There are many state universities just as good as Yale or Princeton that don't have the time to consider much of anything on your application but your grades and test scores.

6. Use your application essay to expand upon how great your grades, scores and activities are. One college official on Admissions 101 said a common bonehead play is to waste the application essay by telling admissions officers things "we more or less already know or could figure out just from reading other parts of the application." This is not only boring, but it leaves the impression that your grades, scores and extracurricular activities are all that is interesting about you. College officials will never say this out loud, but one purpose of the college essay is to weed out insufferable people whom no one would want as a roommate. One good strategy is to write about some lovable quirk that reveals a facet of your character and lets you use some self-deprecating humor, essential to any successful college application essay. I know one applicant who wrote about her ability to identify a song on the car radio after hearing just a couple of notes. It was trivial, but charming, and she got in.

7. Nobody knows you when you are touring a college, so if you want to wear a T-shirt from a rival university or make a cellphone call, go right ahead. This is another problem with which I was unfamiliar. I am not entirely convinced that it is an issue, but Connolly and other experts insist it can hurt you. They think tour guides in some cases have the names of the people in their tours and will report unseemly behavior. A college tour guide told Admissions 101 that his supervisors encouraged him to tell them about tour participants who did GOOD things, such as ask insightful questions. So, I suppose, bad news can also get back to the people who are deciding your fate.

8. Let your parents do whatever they need to do to help you get admitted. This is an oldie but goodie. Helicopter parents, always hovering, have become a part of modern American folklore. They exist, of course. Students who let mom and dad get too involved are likely to suffer. My favorite story comes from an admissions dean at Princeton who, when he inspected the little box on an application that certifies everything the applicant has written is the truth, found that the student's mother had signed it.

9. Colleges are attuned to all the latest fads, so when e-mailing them, it is fine to use text- message abbreviations. Connolly said: "OMG, this is annoying for us non-texters and IDK why students do this to us adults when we are not their BFF."

10. Don't proofread your application carefully and don't bother to check to see if the envelope in which you placed the application or letter of recommendation for College A might actually have the address of College B. Connolly said I would be surprised how often application materials are sent to the wrong school. The best proof of genuine interest in a college is to send it all the material it requested in good order and on time. That is not so hard to do. We all have our moments of stupidity, which is why copy editing and proofreading are such honorable and indispensable activities.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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