Harvard received 35,000 applications for its 2011 entering class and accepted a mere 6.4 percent of hopefuls. Columbia University received 32 percent more applications this year and showed 15 of every 16 applicants the door.
Not all universities are as selective as these Ivy League schools, but the message is clear: College admissions are more competitive than ever. Your application is an opportunity to showcase your talent and hard work. Take care to avoid these 10 mistakes, and you may improve your college admissions outcomes.
College admissions counselors have seen it all: The statement of purpose that names another school; red-flag email addresses like "firstname.lastname@example.org"; and the two-sentence application essay. We asked admissions directors, counselors and private coaches to comment on the top application mistakes students should avoid at all costs.
10 Application Pitfalls To Avoid
1. Counting on the common application.
The "Common App" lets you apply to multiple schools with the click of a mouse. Most colleges require additional materials. The mistake that students make, explains Deborah Stieffel, vice president for Enrollment Management at Susquehanna University, is "not realizing that every school is different. Just because you fill out a Common Application doesn't mean that one size fits all." Avoid stumbling here by visiting the websites of each college at which you plan to apply and submitting supplemental materials on time.
2. Cutting and pasting with abandon.
This time-saving friend can become your worst enemy. The cut-and-paste function leaves many a typo in its wake. Worse, you could name another school in your personal statement or essay. "Don't mention how badly you want to be admitted to School X when you're actually applying to School Y!" says Ryan Cockerill, director of Admission at Lewis University. Regina Schawaroch, director of Undergraduate Admissions at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., agrees: "The most annoying error is when a student writes a letter of interest initially used for another college, and the school's name is still in the letter."
3. Omitting key information.
Farming out your personal essay. Posting scandalous photos on Facebook. Missing out on financial aid opportunities
"Missing parts -- not including the documentation that's being requested" is the most frequent application error Laura Zeigler, assistant director of Admissions at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) encounters. Key information includes everything from birth date and citizenship information to financial data for college funding. In most cases, transfer students need to list all colleges previously attended, and provide sealed transcripts, to secure transfer credits.
4. Sabotaging your letters of recommendation.
Many students make the mistake of targeting high-profile recommenders, rather than choosing the mentors that know them best. Name-dropping will get you nowhere, say admissions counselors. Opt for a solid, enthusiastic recommendation from a teacher who knows you well. For best results, ask early. Executive director of Undergraduate Admissions at Savannah College of Art and Design, Margaret Kross warns students against "waiting until the 11th hour to ask for recommendations. Counselors and teachers won't be in a favorable state of mind, if you wait until the last minute."
5. Missing deadlines.
It's easy to miss a deadline when you're juggling so many different applications and supporting documents. Get the ball rolling early for letters of recommendation, test scores and transcripts to make sure that these documents make it into the right hands at the right time. Also, be aware of hidden deadlines for specific programs. College admissions coach and former admissions director Valerie Hunt alerts students to early deadlines for scholarship programs and schools' honor programs or other academic departments.
6. Exaggerating extracurriculars.
Admissions counselors are wary of the star athlete who is also a musician and community volunteer and fits the exact mold of the well-rounded college applicant. "A laundry list is never warranted," says Stieffel. "List the extracurricular activities that are most important to you and the length of time you've been involved in them." The goal is to demonstrate your commitment to a particular pursuit. As Steve Cohen, best-selling author of "Getting In! The Zinch Guide to College Admissions and Financial Aid in the Digital Age" puts it, "Colleges want a kid who is devoted to and excels at something."
7. Gaming early admission policies.
Some application advisers see an advantage in applying for early admission, since it indicates commitment to a particular school. But college counselors caution students against using the policy as an admissions strategy. "If you don't mean it, don't do it," says Stieffel. Early application designations can also trip up well-meaning applicants; before you apply for an early decision, early action or early admission, make sure that you understand whether your acceptance is binding.
8. Farming out your personal essay.
This important work of original writing is the place to express your hopes, dreams and experiences -- not your parents', and certainly not those of a professional services counselor. Admissions counselors read so many of these essays, they're good at spotting those that have been crafted by parents, admissions coaches, or worse, bought online.
9. Posting scandalous photos on Facebook.
If you wouldn't want your admissions committee to see it, don't post it. Admissions personnel do check social networking outlets like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, says Stieffel. Risa Lewak, author of "Don't Stalk the College Admissions Officer," explains: "I see kids posting pictures of themselves doing shots. Why ruin your chances before you've even applied?" If you're taking the time to present a squeaky-clean image in your application, go the extra step of removing questionable content online.
10. Missing out on financial aid opportunities.
The FAFSA is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to college funding. Private admissions coach Hunt points to under-recognized savings opportunities, such as niche scholarships and in-state tuition reciprocity for some out-of-state applicants. When it works, the application process finds the best fit between student and school. Do your part by submitting a complete and candid representation of your academic potential, and you will have the best chance of winning over the admissions committee -- and attending the college of your choice.
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