Check it twice: Secrets to error-free college apps

A file photo of students at South Side

A file photo of students at South Side High School. (Oct. 7, 2010) (Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin)

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 We can see you now, sitting at your desk or the dining room table, surrounded by brochures from your top-choice schools. You have paper applications stacked or scattered nearby, or your eyes are burning from filling out online apps. You haven’t showered in days, and you’re seriously considering writing an essay about how Harry Potter is the literary figure who has most influenced your life.

Amid this chaos, it would be easy to make a mistake or two. But if there were ever a time to avoid mistakes, it’s now.

College admission officers aren’t looking for reasons to keep you out of their schools. They’re not sitting at their desks, just waiting for you to write the name of your county in the box that says “country” so they can yell, “Deny!” and stamp your app with a big black X.

At the same time, you want to show that you’re up to all of the challenges college offers—starting with the gargantuan task of applying. Use this checklist to avoid common mistakes, and then take a break—and a shower.

Not answering the essay prompt. Even if it means writing yet another essay and risking the possibility of your head exploding, you must answer the essay prompt for each specific school. Don’t persuade yourself that the school will be so impressed by your essay on Americans’ dependence on oil that the admissions committee will overlook the fact that you didn’t answer their prompt—about where you’d go if you could travel back in time.

Telling School A how much you want to go to School B. It’s fine to write one essay and then modify for other schools, as long as the essay actually matches the prompts. But if part of your essay describes how badly you want to go to School A , be sure you change the school’s name before sending the essay to School B.

Forgetting the Common App supplements. The Common App allows you to fill out one app and send it to multiple schools, saving you time and headaches. But remember that many schools ask students to complete supplements specific to each college.

Using the email address that your friends think is hilarious. Create an email account exclusively for communicating about colleges, and make the address professional. A combination of your first initial, last name and birth date is probably a safe bet.

Dissing your teachers. Many apps have room for you to explain special circumstances that affected your grades. Don’t use this opportunity to blame a teacher if you have a less-than-awesome grade. Take ownership, identify the problem and then quickly explain how you have overcome it. Colleges don’t want people who rely on excuses when they struggle.

Confusing “Early Decision” and “Early Action.” Both plans allow you to apply early—usually in November—and get the school’s decision early, probably in December or January. But there’s a big difference between the two plans: If you’re admitted under an early decision plan, you must enroll at that school, but early action plans allow you to wait until the spring to decide.

Forgetting transcripts or letters of recommendation. All of your application materials are due by the deadline. Be sure you give your guidance counselor and teachers at least four weeks to submit the supplementary materials that will make your app complete.

Letting your mom or dad help—too much. Part of the allure of college is your independence, right? So now’s the time to show your self-sufficiency by completing your apps by yourself. Sure, it’s fine for your parents to review them when you’re done to make sure you haven’t made any errors or missed important info. But limit their involvement to proofreaders and cheerleaders.

Procrastinating. Yes, your mom called and asked us to remind you to start your applications. Now.


Foot in Mouth Disease

Things you should never say or do in your quest for college admission.

List “hanging out with friends” or “watching my little brother” as extracurricular activities. They don’t count.

Tell a college rep that his school is your safety school. Not anymore.

Post on your Facebook page pictures of yourself in, ahem, less-than-appropriate situations. You just never know who might be checking out your profile.

Mention that a school is “crazy” not to admit you. Confidence is good; arrogance is annoying.

Let your mom or dad call to check on the status of your application -- unless, of course, you’re planning to take them to college with you.

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