College Application Advice

The Hidden Messages You Send With Your College Application 
What you write might not be what you meant to say. 
by Charlotte Thomas

After you've filled out a few applications, it will dawn on you that college application forms ask an awful lot of questions. It's an extremely intrusive process because there are more applicants than places in each freshman class, and admissions officers don't look at students only in terms of grades. Your application provides admissions with information that displays your unique complexity, experience, and background. It also reveals some attitudes you might not want admissions to know about.

This student just threw this application together.

Applications are highly evolved documents, based on numerous admissions deans asking themselves if they're asking you the right questions, reveals Dean of Undergraduate Admission at Case Western Reserve University William Conley. For that reason, how you fill out an application is almost as important as the information you put in it.

In other words, follow directions.

  • If you're applying electronically, did you type carefully and check your spelling? If you're applying by hand on paper, was your application filled out neatly?
  • Did you take shortcuts? A partially completed application is a clear signal that you are not an eager applicant.
  • Did you send too much information? If a two-page essay is requested, did you send in four? "When we ask for one personal essay, 
    one-to-three pages long, we don't want a fifteen-page paper on acid rain. When we say we want 2 letters of recommendation, we don't want 5," advises Conley.
  • Did you send all the information that was asked for -- transcripts, official test scores, recommendations? You're not coming across as a responsible person if you fail to comply with all the requirements that are requested.
  • Did you meet deadlines or even beat them? Admissions offices are inundated with applications for a few months each year. Why not get your application in when the staff doesn't have hundreds and hundreds to read? Stragglers are accepted of course, but what sort of message is that sending to the reader?

This student doesn't really care about our college.

Students think they're being efficient by churning out a dozen applications and duplicating the information from one to another, but that is a goldmine for mistakes. Nothing says "I don't really care about this college" like inadvertently putting another college's name somewhere in the application. The same goes with spelling the college's name correctly. Either error signals a major lack of seriousness about really wanting to attend that particular campus.

Conley notes that some applicants aren't even sure why they're sending an application to a particular college, and that attitude shows. Then there are those students who apply to fifteen to twenty colleges for status reasons -- so they can say they've been accepted at such and such a college. Some send multiple applications out of sheer panic because they think the more applications, the better chances of getting accepted. At some point a student's attention and level of interest diminishes and that's noticed, warns Conley.

"One of the most dangerous phrases is safety schools," Conley maintains. There are no safety schools because only institutions that match your academic and personal qualities are right for you.

This student doesn't have a clue if this college is a fit.

Think of how you react when someone really knows who you are because they've gone to the trouble to find out. If you don't know about an institution's unique qualities, that sends a negative message about your interest. Application readers can pick up an applicant's enthusiasm - or lack of it, so the first step in filling out an application is to see if you will fit that college's character.

There are many ways to find out about a college's personality. A campus visit is the best. If actually being on a campus is not possible, Web sites and virtual visits will give you a sense of what that college values. By doing some digging, you can determine if you're a good match with a college and avoid sending applications to a college that doesn't fit you.

If you can't visit, call up admissions and talk to a counselor. Meet with representatives from a campus who might be visiting your area. And focus on primary sources, which means don't rely on your friends or friends of friends to tell you what a campus is like. Don't rely on "predigested information."

This student is trying to impress us in the wrong ways.

It is impossible for you to guess what application readers at a particular college will want to hear. Application readers care about what you really value. Better to spend the time focusing on who you are and how best to convey that information. Don't be timid about presenting yourself, either.

Gimmicks don't impress application readers. Videos and other bells and whistles only detract from what you want your application to say about you. And students who send cookies or balloon bouquets don't make a good impression. Get noticed for the right things, like academic excellence and leadership qualities.