The most common university application mistakes, according to experts from UCLA and Georgia Tech

The Washington Post

From wasting time on essays to not using your own voice, here are the simple errors you should avoid when applying to schools in the US

The Washington Post |

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University entrance essays can be confusing and challenging, but there are some simple, common mistakes you can easily avoid.

University applications can be a long and exhausting process and it's easy to make mistakes without even realising it. Admissions officers from around the US share some of the most common errors they see in applications and how to avoid them. 

Telling your story

Don’t waste precious words on the admission essay by restating the prompt or discussing an activity listed elsewhere on the application. Gary Clark, director of undergraduate admission at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), says it is also a major missed opportunity when students spend too much of their essay describing a scene or another person who plays a role in their story. The essay needs to offer new insight into the candidate.

Admissions committees are time-constrained. An essay that gets to the main point quickly, with a very strong opening sentence, and drops the reader right into the moment without a long buildup is more likely to grab the reader’s attention.

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A chance for your voice to be heard

“As an applicant, you need and should have an editor,” says Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech and co-author of “The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”

“Sometimes the best editor is a parent, someone you trust. But students need to watch for when an editor becomes a second author. I tell students that even in your high school you can think of someone who basically has the same grades, classes, and test scores as you do and is just as involved with their activities. The essay is your opportunity to separate yourself, to insert your voice. Don’t let someone rob you of the very thing that we are looking for: that unique, personal voice. I think parents can unintentionally do that.”

Universities seek honesty and authenticity in the admission essay. “Whatever a student can do to get their true self across to us is worthwhile,” says Gregory Sneed, vice president of enrollment management at Denison University, a top liberal arts school in the US state of Ohio. “One of the big misconceptions is students feel they need some sort of disadvantage in their background in order to make a compelling case and that’s not at all true.”

Gary Clark urges students to answer the questions in a straightforward manner and cautions them not to offer up “overcrafted, thesaurus-ridden answers.”

“Too often students think they need to construct themselves into what they think we want to see,” he says. He tells students to “think less about what you think we want to hear, and more about what you want to say.”

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Simple mistakes that matter

Students should use a single, legal form of their name for every interaction around their university application, as well as a single email account and cellphone number to ensure that all their data gets into their file in a timely manner.

Universities often email and sometimes call a student. Although these forms of communication are not entirely native to teenagers, applicants need to get comfortable with both. Universities may email about honours programmes, scholarships, campus visits or missing information on the application. Missing an email or voice mail can be costly. Equally, students are urged to regularly check the online portal to make sure their application is complete.

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Teacher and counselor recommendations

After the essay, the recommendation of a teacher, coach or counselor is another important way admission committees come to know a student. Rick Clark urges students to ask for recommendations from the teacher who knows them best and can share insight into the student’s growth, their work ethic, endeavor, resilience and character. Students are often tempted to ask the teacher who gave them the best grade, but that information is already on the transcript.

When you have made a mistake, own it

Universities recognise that teenagers make mistakes and errors in judgment. But how the university finds out about an applicant’s misstep may affect their decision.

“We are parents. We have our own kids and they are not perfect,” Rick Clark says. His impression of a candidate is affected positively when the student is forthcoming about his or her error with the admissions office. “That carries a lot of weight. ... It’s a character thing. We are building a community, we don’t expect perfection but we do want character.”

“It’s rare for a student to voluntarily disclose information [of an infraction] in an application, where we would hold that against the student in the review process,” Sneed says. “What frustrates us is when there is a disciplinary violation and the student doesn’t volunteer that information and we find out later. Then the situation is less about the violation and more about the truthfulness of the student.”

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Extracurricular activities

It’s all about quality, not quantity. Universities are not looking for a laundry list of extracurricular activities but instead seek genuine involvement or interest in an activity. They can see through students who are padding their CV.

“When a student, at the end of their junior year or the beginning of their senior year, suddenly joins a large number of organisations, that raises an eyebrow because it does not demonstrate sustained depth of involvement and true interest,” Sneed says. “What stands out are students who have done a handful of things and have done them really well and have distinguished themselves either through their leadership, some sort of special talent, or their dedication.”

A good application might just give you the edge to get the place you want.
Photo: AP

Does a university expect a student to demonstrate their interest?

As part of the application, some universities consider “demonstrated interest” in their admission decision, Sneed says. Students should convey their interest to these universities, as it will be tracked and recorded in their application file. The Common Data set for each college shows the gradient of importance of “demonstrated interest,” in the application from very important to not considered at all.

A student can show genuine interest, explains Susan Dabbar, an independent educational consultant and founder of Admissions Smarts, by visiting campus for a tour or information session. For students without the time or resources to visit, Dabbar suggests they email and start talking with their regional college admission representative (who may be one of their application’s first readers), attend an information session at their high school or a local college fair to meet their rep, and read all email communication from the university.

“Research the schools on your final univeristy list to see if they offer or require an [in-person or online] interview. It is one of the best ways to learn more about each other,” Dabbar says. Applicants can express their interest if there is a supplemental essay question asking why a student wants to attend that university.

“The ‘why us’ essay is a place to really shine and tell a school what you’ve learned, why you want to attend and what you hope to contribute. I tell my students, ‘Write this essay like you’re in love,’ ” Dabbar says.

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Don’t reverse engineer the application process

“Beware of the gospel, according to the neighbor,” Gary Clark cautions parents and teenagers. He urges applicants to refrain from trying to “reverse engineer” the admissions process and infer what a university is seeking from past admission decisions. Universities consider a large number of factors when evaluating a student, as well as their need to build a freshman class.

Clark explains that it is too easy to make inaccurate inferences about what the admissions committee is seeking. He reminds applicants that at many universities, particularly highly selective ones, a student may not have been admitted simply because there were too many qualified applicants.

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