Five ways you can still ruin your college application process

For seniors still slogging your way through college applications, there’s still a lot you can do to improve, or ruin, the remainder of your application cycle. To make the rest of the process less stressful and more successful, here are five things to avoid.

1. Wait to complete your remaining applications until you hear from your early application school(s).
November 1 has come and gone, and many applicants elected to apply to colleges that offered early decision or early application options that will return your admissions news in early December. You might be tempted to take a break, cross your fingers, and wait to hear from those schools before completing the remainder of your applications. Please don’t do it.  I’ve offered this tip before, so I’ll let my past writing do my current convincing for this year’s class. Trust me on this one.

2. Forget to celebrate your acceptances.
This is a Collegewise oldie but goodie because we see every year what a difference it can make in a family’s college admissions process. Too many families casually toss aside acceptances from schools that aren’t among their top choices, reserving their celebration for what they hope will be forthcoming offers of admission from schools at the top of their list. That just minimizes the applicant’s accomplishment, overlooks an opportunity to recognize a very real college option, and worst of all, perpetuates the idea that the only acceptable outcome is an offer of admission from a particular school. I’m not saying you have to throw a parade when your safety school admits you. But some acknowledgement, recognition, and even some in-family high-fiving can go a long way to inject some positivity and perspective into your process.

3. Obsess about forthcoming decisions.
We’ve all done it: worried and waited on pins and needles for something happening in the future. But while some applicants are able to get back to some semblance of enjoying a normal, application-free life, many others just double down on their anxiety. They spend far too much time obsessing about what’s to come instead of enjoying what’s already here. But no amount of wondering and worrying will wrestle control of a decision that is now officially out of your hands. All it will do is make the time leading up to that decision all the more riddled with anxiety. You only get to be a high school senior once. And once your college applications are behind you, it’s time to start enjoying those things again that you put on hold, like friends, family, activities, hobbies, etc.

4. Let the second-guessing commence.
Many applicants (and parents) second-guess their past college planning decisions in retrospect. They’ll regret not taking the ACT a third time, or wish they’d done more volunteer work, or lament the B- in French that they’re sure could have been raised with even more tutoring. Hindsight like this is only helpful if you can either learn from or do something about it. Otherwise, it’s just a wasted channel of worry that won’t do anything to improve your current state or your college admissions chances. Look forward, not back.

5. Allow your grades to slip.
I know, I know. You’ve heard this one before—keep your grades up or it might negatively impact your admissions chances (or change your status once you’re already admitted). But you’ve heard it before because it’s true. Few counselors or admissions officers will go on the record with a definitive statement of just how much grade slippage an applicant can get away with, and that’s because there is no hard-and-fast rule (it depends on the college and how precipitous the drop is). But this is one of those areas where you have great influence over the outcome. Don’t give colleges a reason to wonder whether or not you’re doing your part to keep up the good work.

When extra materials invite themselves

There are some important lessons for applicants in the latest University of Virginia post, Things You Want to Send (But Shouldn’t): Resumes, Research, and Writing Portfolios, but the most important one appears in the post’s conclusion (bold emphasis theirs):

“Colleges ask for the things they need to make their decisions. If we don’t ask for it, we don’t want you to spend time (or money) on it.”

I understand where the urge to send additional materials comes from. You want to stand out. You hear stories about students who supposedly gained an advantage by sending papers, articles, portfolios, etc. And there are plenty of supposedly helpful “How to get into college” articles that recommend exactly that course of action (I read one in an in-flight magazine while traveling recently).

But you can weed through all of that nervousness and noise by just trusting that each college you apply to will be very clear about what they want—and don’t want. Some will invite you to submit extra materials, but most won’t. Feel free to accept the invitation if it’s offered, but don’t let extra materials invite themselves.

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.

Don’t answer to fear

It happens every year about this time. Mid-October. That’s when some previously rational parents become decidedly irrational. That’s when some previously good kids become much more difficult for counselors to advise and shepherd through the application process. It’s the time when one emotion, dormant for months or years for many families, rises up and takes hold.


Mid-October is when many families start to get scared. Deadlines are closing in. Decisions will follow. It all starts to get too real. They worry they’re missing something. They’re worried that someone’s getting an advantage they aren’t getting. They’re worried things won’t go well and that they’ll look back with regret.

It’s certainly possible to be too casual about college admissions. You’ve put in three years of hard work that must now get distilled into applications. Depending on where you’re applying, there can be a lot of work to do and details to keep track of. It’s an important time that deserves to be taken seriously.

But fear is an absolutely terrible college application assistant.

Fear makes families imagine the worst, often without any evidence to support the vision. Fear tells you that you’ve made the wrong choices, that you’re doing things wrong, and that you’re making mistakes, which just sends many kids and parents into a college admissions tailspin.

Here are a few examples of admissions behaviors that are almost always driven by fear.

  • Frantically adding colleges to the list as deadlines get close
  • Calling or emailing the admissions office repeatedly, often with the same questions
  • Shopping your essays around to anyone willing to give you feedback
  • Creating and expressing excuses for perceived weaknesses in your application
  • Holding a completed application hostage and refusing to submit it
  • Parents over-editing or flat out writing essays for their kids
  • Obsessing over things that you can’t control, like whether or not one particular college will say yes
  • Cramming information that’s not vital, current, or interesting into the “Additional Information” sections of applications
  • Taking the SAT or ACT a 4th or 5th or 6th time
  • Submitting extra letters of recommendation or other unsolicited materials
  • Attempting to leverage connections (usually with people who rarely have any real pull)
  • Channeling admissions stress into unsubstantiated anger or blame
  • Behaving in a way that treats the college admissions process like a life-and-death struggle
  • Forgetting to be thankful for your health, family, and inevitable college opportunities

Irrational fear gets a hold of all of us from time to time. But the first step towards eliminating it is to acknowledge that it’s there. Once you do that, fear loses all of its power.

Making good college admissions decisions is dependent on answering to the right people and forces. Answer to yourself and your gut instincts. Answer to your teachers and counselor. Answer to your family who loves you. And of course, answer to the colleges—they’re telling you what they want you to do as an applicant.

But don’t answer to fear. Fear doesn’t deserve your attention.

The just right approach

One extreme approach to college applications is to procrastinate until the impending deadlines leave you no choice but to get things done. But that’s stressful, risky, and almost never leads to applications and essays that are as good as they would have been had you started earlier and spent more time getting them right.

The other extreme is the student (or parent) who meticulously plans an application schedule. Every application, every essay prompt, every necessary to-do is itemized and scheduled on a calendar, spreadsheet, or other organizational tool of choice. It’s better than the wait-until-the-last-minute approach, but these schedules tend to fall apart quickly. Seniors are busy, and many of their schedules are in a constant state of flux. You just never know when you’ll end up rehearsing late, completing an AP government assignment, or getting stuck on one of those application essays that takes more than the allotted time to complete.

Patrick O’Connor has a reasonable approach that seems just right to me. As shared in his post for counselors, What to Say When Your Students are Freaked About College Apps:

“Carve a two-hour block out of Saturday or Sunday (or both), work on your applications then — and only then — and forget about them during the week. That way, you get to study and learn, work on the homecoming float, have a great senior year, and write great college essays to boot. Plus, your applications will be done by Thanksgiving, so you can spend Christmas break with your family, not with your computer.”

I’ve helped a lot of students apply to college. My counselors have helped even more. And I can tell you that depending on where you’re applying and how many applications you’re submitting, if you follow this schedule–two hours, Saturday and Sunday—for even just 2-3 weekends in a row, you will either be finished with applications, or you will have made such significant progress that your stress levels will lower considerably (and you’ll have momentum on your side).

Here’s the key, though. You’ve got to make those two-hour blocks count. Turn off all your notifications. Avoid all interruptions. Go to a library or someplace else quiet with nothing to distract you. And then focus like your college applications depend on it.

Five underutilized college application tips

Start early. Proofread. Some college application advice is sound, but hardly news. Here are five underutilized college application tips for seniors in the middle of, or waiting to start, their applications.

1. Beat—then use—inertia.
The law of inertia says that matter will stay in an existing state—standing still or moving in the same direction—until an external force changes it. That’s true for projects, too. Starting a big project is usually the hardest part. It’s too scary, too overwhelming, and just easier to put off one more day. But once you exert enough outside force to change your still state, it’s easier to just keep moving. Bottom line: just start. Do whatever you have to do. Your application or essay doesn’t have to be perfect right away—it just needs to stop being blank. Recognize that continuing will almost certainly be easier than starting. Here are a few past posts, here and here, with some advice from experts that will help.

2. Rejigger your deadlines.
Deadlines can be good or bad. On the upside, impending deadlines have a way of getting work out of you. They beat down procrastination, lack of inspiration, and general fatigue. But they also raise your stress, and depending on how close you cut it, damage the quality of your application. So here’s how to get the good without the bad—change the deadlines. Make them impending today and treat them as if they were the real thing. You’d be amazed how much you can do.

3. Trim the fat.

Imagine I said to you,

I got three projects done last weekend. I fixed an electrical problem in my house, I volunteered at a local food bank for five hours, and I made a salad.

Wouldn’t that description have had more oomph if I’d just left the salad tidbit out?

Even the best meat can be ruined by too much fat. And even a really successful college applicant can seem less impressive when they bloat their application with everything they’ve ever done in high school. That club that you left after one semester of freshman year? You obviously didn’t care about it that much (which is fine). So why do you think an admissions officer would? Your college application should present your most compelling, meaningful, or proudest work. That doesn’t mean that everything you share has to be an unmitigated success. But if it doesn’t add anything to the application other than fat, trim it off and let the tastier parts come through.

4. Tell the truth.
Yes, it’s bad to lie on a college application. You’re signing your name to a document that you’re asserting is true. If a college finds out, you’ll be out, even if you’ve been admitted and are happily living in a dorm on campus. But honesty is also an underutilized likeability tool on college applications. Were you the slowest runner on the cross country team? Don’t omit that part in an essay about cross country. Did you do something stupid and get suspended as a sophomore? Use the word “stupid” when you explain it in the prompt that asks you to do so. Did your entry into the robotics competition literally go up in flames? Mistakes are human. So is the occasional failure. Yes, there’s a limit to how honest you should be (I would not admit to crimes, a hatred for school, or anything else that would raise caution in a reader’s mind). But it’s a lot easier to like—and admit—a real human than an over-polished applicant.

5. Sleep on it.
Applications and essays sometimes don’t look as good the next morning as they did the night before when you finished them. Use that to your advantage. Start early (see tip #1) and allow yourself a few extra days to come back with a fresh set of eyes. When it looks as good as you thought it did the night before, then you’re done.

Should you apply early decision?

The Tufts admissions blog is one of my favorites for two reasons: (1) they write about things applicants care about, and (2) they regularly serve up unvarnished admissions truths.

Tufts’ Meredith Reynolds’s recent post, Should I Apply Early Decision?, offers what I thought was an honest, helpful take for any applicant pondering that question. And she doesn’t just tackle the easy part of the answer (only apply early decision if it’s your first choice). Within the post, she also gives one of the most honest answers I’ve seen to the question, “Is it easier to get in if I apply early?” And her final takeaway is great advice for any college-bound student, Tufts applicant or not.

“So here’s the take-away, junior and seniors: There is value in taking the time now to determine if you have a first choice school – and if you do, Early Decision can be a really great option. But if you don’t find a first choice school – one you’re sure of and your family has decided they can afford – ED is simply not meant for you. And that’s OK, because the schools that see a fit with you are still going to be excited to admit you in March (and here’s another fact to keep in mind – by sheer volume, we say “yes” to far more people in Regular than we do in Early). And ultimately, this decision is just too darn big to make based on anything other than pure love for an institution and excitement for your future there.”

Last call for our Common App webinar

There are plenty of potential reasons why a college applicant might consider attending our upcoming webinar, Making your Common App Less Common, featuring our Vice-President and Head of Counseling, Arun Ponnusamy. Maybe you have questions about which essay topic to choose. Maybe you’re struggling with the activity section. Or maybe you just want to learn from an expert to make sure you’re putting your best application foot forward.

But there are times when a presenter is so knowledgeable, so generous with their information and advice, and just so good at what they do that I will personally attend no matter what the topic. Arun is one of those speakers. I’ve watched or co-presented with him dozens of times over the last 12 years, and I always learn something when I do. That’s why I’m not just recommending the webinar; I’ll also be in the audience myself tonight.

It’s taking place tonight, September 13, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. PDT. The cost to attend is $10, and you can get all the information here.

I hope you’ll be able to join us.

Join us for a live Common App webinar

For seniors who are (or will soon be) filling out your Common Application, join us for a live webinar, Making Your Common App Less Common. It’s taking place September 13 from 6 p.m. – 7:15 p.m. PST and will feature Arun Ponnusamy, our Vice-President and Head of Counseling, who has read more than 7,500 applications and 20,000 essays at UCLA, Caltech, and the University of Chicago.

The cost is $10 per attendee, and we’re limiting attendance to 200. You can find all the details, and the link to register, here.

More stuff = more fluff

“Can I send an extra letter of recommendation?” is one of those questions to which many families protest the answer, which is why I come back repeatedly here to a consistent theme—follow the application instructions; don’t decide that you have a better way. If a college wants extra letters of rec (or any extra materials), they’ll tell you.

This post from the University of Virginia about letters of recommendation is worth a read whether or not you are applying to UVa. First, they address the notion of sending extra, unsolicited materials to any college:

“I promise you that colleges ask for the items they want to review. There is no hidden message that we really want something else.”

The remainder of the post also does an excellent job explaining the roles of the teacher and counselor letters of recommendation in the UVa admissions process. And while the writer is not claiming that those details are necessarily true for other colleges, unless your chosen colleges tell you otherwise (there’s that theme again), applicants would be well-served following the advice in the post.

Work with what each college gives you in their application and essays. Spend your time clearly and thoughtfully answering their questions. Don’t resort to sending unsolicited extra materials in the hopes that more information will actually make you a stronger candidate. More stuff equals more fluff.