Early action applications are due in November. Admissions officials have been educating me on what they want and don’t want. Here are five underutilized ways to give yourself an advantage.
1. At least once in any essay, make fun of yourself. It’s called self-deprecation. It should be (but is not) taught in every essay-writing and speechmaking class. When my daughter Katie’s first-choice college asked her to tell it something not on her application, she wrote about her friend’s label for her: the human jukebox. She could identify songs by just the first three or four notes. She told the college, “The happiest place in the world for me is inside my car singing (badly) to pop music.” That’s self-deprecation. You can slip some into whatever you have already written. If it’s about your volunteer hospital work, describe a clumsy moment. Did you mix up a patient’s urine sample with his apple juice? That tells the college you are not just smart but enjoyable to have around.
2. Start trimming. Anxiety has forced you to include too much information. Admissions officers sigh in exasperation at lists of every imaginable out-of-class initiative. Attaching a resume stuffed with them is even worse. Focus instead on three or four activities. If you have two of unusual depth — such as writing and directing a play, running a city council campaign or winning state baking contests — that’s all you need.
3. Apply to a school your parents and friends think is beneath you but has extracurricular activities you love. Most students and parents evaluate colleges the way U.S. News & World Report does: graduation and retention rates, reputation, faculty resources, selectivity and other academic stuff. That is often not what makes a college valuable. My school changed my life not because of challenging professors but because it had a daily student newspaper. Entrepreneurs, coaches, TV writers and teachers often found their passions wonderfully addressed at colleges that didn’t rank so high. Someone you know with a job that intrigues you could tell you which schools are like that. Send in a last-minute application to one or two of them.
4. Apply to a school that your parents and friends think is above you but does not appear to be attracting many applications from classmates with better grades. It seems strange, but the most selective colleges with the biggest national reputations have the most localized approach to admitting students. How you compare with other students at your high school is important to them because they only take a few students from each school. If a highly ranked college you like is overlooked this year by your peers (your counselor can tell you which one that might be), you should apply. Selective college enrollment is a crapshoot anyway. Throw the dice.
5. Hold an application bee. My rural Illinois ancestors had many neighborhood projects. There were quilting bees, house raisings and community harvests. Why not have an application bee? Open up your basement, buy pizza and soda and invite friends to bring copies of their almost-complete applications for everyone else to check. You probably shouldn’t share an application with someone applying to the same college. The competitive instinct might warp judgment. But people your age facing the same challenges can detect problems of tone, emphasis or even spelling that your parents and counselor might miss. And it’s a great excuse for a party. You can put away the apps, relax and enjoy ridiculous campus comedies that can be found online. “PCU” is my favorite.
As for my daughter, she got into the college she wanted in part because her essay showed her to be irreverent, fun and, as she put it, possessing the potential to be “an excellent person at pub trivia.” At the time, I didn’t realize she knew anything about pubs, so it was best that she shared those ideas with her friends and not with me.