Just as there is no one path to getting admitted to a particular school, there is no one reason that applicants get rejected. Usually, it is a combination of factors, not all of which are in the applicant’s control.
There are, however, many common mistakes that applicants make that can be easily avoided by planning ahead, taking your time, and being mindful of the information that you’re giving to the admissions committee. These mistakes or “red flags” could send your application to the “no” pile if you’re not careful. That may sound nerve-wracking, but the good news is you can easily avoid these mistakes, giving your application a better chance in the competitive game of selective college admissions.
As a former admissions officer at MIT, here are some common mistakes I saw frequently that can be easily avoided:
1. Leaving out vital personal details: Context is everything!
Yes, it is true; context is everything in the admissions process. Applicants from low socio-economic backgrounds, or whose parents did not attend college are measured with a different yardstick than affluent applicants who have had numerous opportunities for personal and academic growth and exploration. The applicant who spends several hours every weekday babysitting younger siblings or who has to work 25 hours a week to help with the family finances, simply won’t have the extracurricular profile of her peers.
But context is much more nuanced than socio-economic circumstances alone. Maybe you have a learning disability or physical handicap, or a parent has an addiction problem that has wreaked havoc in your nuclear family, or your parents practice a type of religion that sheltered you from mainstream culture, or you are an ethnic or cultural minority in your context or in the applicant pool for the college to which you are applying.
Reflect on your circumstances and try to see it from an objective point of view: What is your community like? What kind of home life do you have? What family responsibilities do you shoulder? Then, let colleges know. Help the admissions committee to imagine you in your context, in as full and rich a way as possible. Applicants who leave out this vital personal backstory often lose out in the admissions game.
2. The narcissistic applicant: Grow up! It’s not all about you!
If the earth revolves around you, you might be looking at a lot of rejection letters in the end. Be mindful of the number of times you use “I” in your essays. Do you give credit to teachers, mentors, bosses, and others who have shepherded you along the way, or did you do it all by your amazing self? Have you thought about what you can contribute to make the world a better place, or are you only concerned about what others (and colleges) can do for you? You get the picture.
Also, be careful how you write about your high school teachers, administrators, and classmates. You might be 100% correct that they are uninspiring, small-minded, and disengaged, but you will be 100% wrong that the staff at highly selective colleges will sympathize with your superior attitude. It’s ok to point out weaknesses in your high school, but remember to be respectful and never blame your school for your own shortcomings.
3. Lacking ambition and vision
One thing that would send an MIT application to the “no” pile pretty quickly for me was an applicant who would say he wants to study at MIT so that he can get a good job upon graduation. Not everyone grows up to be an astronaut or a Nobel-prize-winning author, or the President of the United States, but you definitely won’t get there, or anywhere close, if you don’t allow yourself to dream big and imagine what you could achieve if you reached your full potential.
Of course, schools read applications contextually—for students who are first in their family even to graduate high school, going to a premier college and getting a well-paying, white-collar job IS ambitious. Readers know this and adjust their thinking accordingly. But, it’s easier to admit someone who has a compelling vision for his future, who convinces the reader that he will do something great with his education.
4. Lack of familiarity with school: Don’t fail the demonstrated interest test!
Most schools use some sort of admissions rubric to normalize their applicant pool. Some schools factor the amount of interest an applicant seems to have for the school—i.e., demonstrated interest—in the rating systems. All schools want to admit students who genuinely know and like the school and might actually attend if admitted.
An important piece of demonstrated interest is your answer to the school’s version of the “Why X school?” essay. Your essay should be full of specific details about the academic programs and student activities that attract you to the school and how you would contribute to the school community. If you haven’t investigated the school thoroughly, your essay will be bland and may even come across as insincere.
5. Avoid “TMI”
Your application is not a confessional. Each of us has a dark side—we have personality flaws and the emotional baggage that accumulates simply from living in an imperfect world. The application is a place to celebrate the other side, your best self. Be very careful about revealing your neuroses, fears, failures, regrets, if those revelations aren’t convincingly balanced by highlighting the positives that came out of difficult experiences, by demonstrating that you have come through to the other side of the tunnel.
Also avoid the other type of TMI: Too much extra information that doesn’t enhance the application. Don’t send in nine letters of recommendation, copies of every academically-related certificate ever earned, and a bunch of press clippings from the local paper. In general, application readers have a TON of stuff to read in a very short window of time. Don’t annoy them—be thoughtful and strategic about what extra materials you submit.
6. Incomplete activities list: You are what you do!
For anyone who still thinks perfect grades and SAT scores get you into highly selective colleges in the US, think again! What you do outside of the formal classroom—your extracurricular activities—is one of the most important things that separates merely qualified applicants from desirable ones. So please don’t be lazy when you fill out your activities list!
Don’t forget to indicate the year(s) of participation, calculate the number of hours per week, and weeks per year, and tell the school your role in each activity, especially if you were a leader. Also, provide an explanation of any obscure activities. Don’t leave out something that is important to you because you think the admissions committee doesn’t care about your sewing hobby, for example. And, finally, absolutely do not submit a resumé in lieu of completing the activities list!
7. The repurposed essay: Answer each essay prompt individually!
It’s tough applying to 10 schools while you’re juggling a busy schedule. It’s tempting to try to answer the essay prompts for all 10 supplements with that one great essay you slaved over, but be careful here. You can score low marks on the demonstrated interest test if it is obvious to the reader that you have repurposed an essay for another school to kinda, sorta fit their prompt. Readers tend to be familiar with the prompts from peer institutions, so they could notice and be unimpressed with your efforts.
8. Thesauras-itis: Put away Roget’s!
Don’t fill your essays with ten-dollar words when ten-cent ones will do just fine. If you have a large vocabulary, by all means don’t dumb yourself down. However, large words improperly or gratuitously used won’t impress anyone, and could be enough to turn the reader off from you altogether. The words that flow naturally out of you will give your essays an authentic voice.
9. Poor grammar and punctuation: College essays aren’t text messages!
If you were born and bred in an English-speaking environment, readers will expect you to have a strong command of proper grammar and punctuation. You don’t want to give the reader ANY reasons to put your application in the reject pile, but poor grammar and punctuation will get you there quick – I mean quickly. If English is your second language, try to have a native speaker review your application for glaring errors in grammar, word choice, and punctuation. No one will expect your prose to be perfect, but go the extra mile and have someone review your grammar.
10. Inadequate proofreading: Your word processing programs can fail you!
Finally, don’t rely on spell-check and other word processor functions alone—proofread and then proofread again! Have another pair of eyes review your application. Admissions officers are only human, after all. They can’t help but be turned off from your MIT application when you neglect to replace “Harvard” with “MIT” in your essay. It won’t put you in the reject pile immediately, but it is one of those insidious things. Don’t go there!
There’s a lot to consider when applying to college. It’s not just about where you apply, but also the content and substance of your application. By avoiding these common mistakes, you’ll be in the best position to gain admission to your top-choice college!