By: Caroline Koppelman
The college admissions process is a daunting undertaking. For you students it will require an insane amount of your time, effort, and focus. But you’re probably sick of hearing this. You’ve had this drummed into your heads by college counselors, teachers, and your parents. As consulting professionals (aka people who help get into college for a living) what we want to do is help you identify the five most common mistakes students like you make during the college admissions process. If you learn from these mistakes the whole process will undoubtedly go much smoother and you’ll have a much better chance of ending up at the school of your dreams.
1. Applying to the wrong schools
We see students making mistakes all the time when it comes time to decide where to apply. Some will apply only to the highest tier of schools, regardless of whether they’re qualified, and some will only apply to schools that are well below their standards because they believe their guaranteed admission. Both of these are awful strategies. Instead we recommend this: Create a list with three categories, Reaches, Targets, and Safeties. Then compare your credentials (Grades, SAT scores, etc.) to the ranges supplied by schools you are interested in. If you’re below the range it's probably a reach. (For some schools you may well be so below the range it's not worth applying to.) If you’re in the range it’s a target, and above the range a safety. While this is an oversimplification of how to choose a list of schools, this will help you get a better sense of schools that make sense to apply to and build your list of possible college destinations.
2. Choosing a Cliche Essay Topic
The essay is a deceptively important part of the college application. While many students have the grades and test scores to qualify them for a school, they often blend into the rest of the applicant pool because they have nothing that sets them apart. Your essay is your opportunity to advocate on your behalf and prove your qualifications. Make sure your topic is original, personal, and demonstrates something about you not evident from the rest of your application. Pick something profound that showcases your individuality and sets you, not an experience that tons of people your age have had. Perhaps the most important rule is never write about Summer service trips abroad. Never. Ever.
3. Letting your parents be over or under-involved
Where you spend your four years at college is hugely important not only to you but also to your parents. They love you so much and only want the best for you. But sometimes they may get too involved in the process. We’ve heard horror stories of parents writing their kid’s essays for them, calling the admissions office twice a day to ask about decisions, and pestering college counselors about their kids chances of getting accepted. Students: Remind them that this process is ultimately about finding the school that works the best for you and that you need to be the one in charge. Their stress will stress you out, which helps no one. That being said, make sure to keep your parents in the loop. Oftentimes they can bring insight and wisdom that can help you through the process, so it's never a bad idea to come to them with doubts or uneasiness. It’s all about striking the right balance.
Let me tell you a story: One night my senior year of high school a friend and I were IMing (this is 2011--the dark days before iMessage) and she mentioned off-hand that she was stressed about getting in her University of Texas-Austin application before the deadline in three hours because she hadn’t finished her essay. Because we were in California, which is two hours behind Austin, she didn’t realize her essay was actually due in an hour. Don’t be like this. Start your applications early and get them done with plenty of time to spare. A hastily done application will never turn out well and almost always guarantees a rejection.
5. Being Lazy
The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden often said to his players, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” The college process is all about effort. You have to put in the effort on every piece of it otherwise you’re setting yourself up for rejection. This not only means starting everything early but it means giving everything the maximum effort. Load your schedule up with hard classes, spend the extra time prepping for the SATs, and pursue a new extracurricular you’re passionate about. Do your research when it comes time to pick schools and spend hours pouring over the website to give your essays extra depth. Where you attend college will shape your life in a million ways and you don’t want to end up somewhere you’ll be unhappy at because you didn’t try hard enough.
You’ve probably heard it a lot recently but it's true. Your four years at college will be some of the best of your entire life. So avoid these common mistakes and you’ll dramatically increase your chances of getting into the best fit school for you. It’s super important to remember that the college process shouldn’t just be daunting. It should also be an opportunity to explore places you’ll spend some of the most fun, life-changing years of your life. It’s an exhilarating journey. Especially when you’re prepared for it.