Where to shine your application spotlight

Four years ago, when I’d just moved to Seattle, I was looking for a house cleaning service. One local company I called made it a policy to send the owner to meet personally with every prospective customer before writing the estimate. During our meeting, he spent a few minutes telling me about his company and what made it different. Then he spent the remainder of his time refuting two negative Yelp reviews. He had a lot to say about why they were unfair, what he’d done to try to make things right, and why he hoped I wouldn’t let two “bad apples” influence me.

Until he brought them up, I’d never even seen those negative reviews. So he was actually introducing concerns instead of addressing them. When I looked at the Yelp reviews later, the vast majority of them were overwhelmingly positive. Why did he use his time to shine a spotlight on the isolated negatives? I eventually chose a different company. It was hard to shake the feeling that there must be something going on if he felt that defensive about issues that I hadn’t even asked about.

Too many applicants want to use their college applications to explain away their perceived shortcomings.

“I got a C in math because…”
“My test scores are low because…”
“I didn’t run track last year because…”

But too often, those applicants are just shining their application spotlight on a few isolated, even insignificant, imperfections that don’t represent the entirety of their high school career.

There are times when it’s smart to address an inconsistency on an application. Illnesses, family upheaval, transferring schools—there are plenty of legitimate reasons why you might suffer a setback in high school. But giving too many excuses for too many setbacks makes you sound like a defensive college applicant crying wolf.

Imperfections are a normal part of life, and most don’t need to be explained away on a college application. Anomalies, on the other hand, especially when there’s a legitimate, factual, blame-free explanation, are often worth addressing.

Necessary and legitimate explanations remove doubts. Unnecessary and concocted explanations raise them.

Spend the majority of your time shining the spotlight on those things that make you proud of yourself and of your high school career. And if you’re not sure whether or not to address a perceived weakness, run it by your high school counselor first.