Stop Selling Yourself Short When Applying for College
Find your inner voice and use it to tell colleges what they need to know about you

U.S. News and World Report, America's Best Colleges 2010

By Linda Kulman

Selling yourself to a college is easy. You just have to convince the admissions committee that you're one in 2 million. That's roughly the number of applicants that four-year schools will be sifting through this year. So let go of the notion that the fat envelope would already be in the mail if you could just crack the admissions code. "It would be a lot easier if there was a magic formula," says David duKor-Jackson, associate dean of admissions at Bucknell University, "but there isn't." There's no magic essay topic, either. Says Annalee Nissenholtz, an independent college counselor in St. Louis: "If I hear about one more kid who's saving the poor ... ! The first kid or two who did it—they were really interesting, and then everyone heard that must be the trick. There really is no trick. It's digging deep and trying to figure out what makes you interesting."

That's good news. Instead of trying to decipher what they want, your task is to tell your story—to convey, in today's college app watchwords, a sense of your passion and commitment. Colleges are trying to understand something: "Who is this person, and why would we want him or her to join this community?" says Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College. Use each part of the process to accentuate your positives and show how you will contribute to the greater good. "We no longer are just looking to pick up students," says Jed Liston, assistant vice president of enrollment services at the University of Montana-Missoula. "We're looking for citizens."

Making the grade. The first thing colleges look at is your high school transcript. "If you're not in the ballpark, extracurriculars aren't going to get you in," says Jim Jump, academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va.—"unless you've won the Nobel Prize or have your own sitcom." But beyond the A's, B's, and C's, admissions staffs like to see academic risk takers. "Students ask us, 'Is it better to get an A in a regular class or a B in an AP class?' " says Keith Gramling, director of undergraduate admissions at Loyola University New Orleans." Well, it's better to get an A in an AP class. But we are looking for students who have challenged themselves."

Still, piling on classes to impress your dream college can backfire. "Oftentimes I find myself trying to talk students off the AP ledge," says Rick Bischoff, director of admissions at California Institute of Technology. "I see students who are doing all they can to keep up with the work and don't have time to keep up with the learning. We're not counting APs. Has this student taken a rigorous curriculum? Has it prepared them? ... It's that engagement that's central." Adds Stephen Farmer, associate provost and director of undergraduate admissions of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill: "What we want for students is the feeling that they're looking for the next great thing they need to know. We like to see a sense of joy and curiosity."

Express yourself. If the goal is helping colleges picture who you are, the essay, as one longtime admissions officer says, is "the peek through the curtain." Applicants often assume that the peek should reveal not a subtle landscape but a dramatic perspective. "Students feel, 'I need to find that exotic thing that sells,' " says Tony Cabasco, dean of admission and financial aid at Whitman College. In truth, he says, what you write about "doesn't have to be a week in Africa. It can be you were a clerk at Safeway for the summer and that changed the way you view race relations or the environment." Adds Ted O'Neill, the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, "Turning points in their lives are kind of premature for kids of this age." Delahunty's idea of a "truly exceptional essay" at Kenyon: one in which "a student travels in a few swift paragraphs from one perspective to another and has seen the deeper meaning, learned the lesson, or found the humor."

"We're looking for a thoughtful, earnest presentation that shows complicated interests and thinking," says O'Neill. This can be achieved in stories reflecting on life's smaller slices—why you like helping your dad fix up old cars on the weekend, being the only boy in a family of seven girls, why you like to write birthday limericks. Liston at Montana-Missoula recalls reading one student's answer to the question "What was the most significant invention of all time?" It was "a very elegant essay on the spork," he says. "You left saying, 'That was quirky, that was funny, but that was well thought out.' "

Make sure your authentic voice comes through, avoiding the appearance of what Ingrid Hayes, associate vice president of enrollment management and director of admissions at Spelman College, calls a "manufactured essay." Adds Delahunty: "Sometimes, we'll say, 'Didn't the mom write a beautiful application?' ... When you see the word heretofore, that's a clue." Far worse than parent-assisted essays are the ready-made ones available for around the same price as two tickets to the movies, a stratagem that will almost certainly go awry. Loyola New Orleans received the same essay—purchased online—from different applicants; they were, not surprisingly, denied. A variation on the same rule: Don't exaggerate. "Always, always, always be honest," says Missy Sanchez, director of college counseling at Woodward Academy in Atlanta. "Maybe you're going to get lucky, but the real professionals on the other side—they're going to ask questions."

Be sure the inner self you expose is one you're proud to claim. Poorly chosen words can make a bad impression. One applicant "wrote about an argument during which he broke a wall," says UNC's Farmer. "Rather than writing what he learned, he justified his behavior. ... He came across as shockingly incurious [and] seemed unteachable. You thought: He's going to spend four years making speeches."

Show a little love. Although most students apply to multiple colleges, showing genuine enthusiasm for each school on your list is such a must that colleges have a name for it: "demonstrated interest." No college wants to play second or fifth—or 15th—fiddle. "We want kids who want us," says Jean Jordan, dean of admission at Emory University. Tailor each application individually, with concrete examples of why you can see yourself there. "If you can take out Rice University and put in Vanderbilt and not make a difference," says Chris Muñoz, Rice's vice president for enrollment, "that's not going to work." As always, your presentation is crucial. "Writing 'I sat in Lorch Hall' doesn't help me feel like that student knows more about us," says Erica Sanders, director of recruitment and operations at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. "Saying 'Professor So-and-so's class helped me become even more interested'—or 'made me realize I really don't know what I want to pursue'—can make a difference." And do your homework. Claiming that you want to go to XYZ university for engineering when the school doesn't offer such a program will make your application memorable—but not in a good way.

Find your fans. If the application is your chance to talk about what makes you stand out, think of teacher recs as a way to reinforce your themes. The best choice isn't always the teacher whose class you aced, says Sanchez; better to pick the one who can describe what you're like as a person. "Ask if they can write you a strong recommendation," advises Seattle-based educational consultant Judy Mackenzie. "If the teacher hesitates, back off." Once you've got an advocate, type up bullet points summarizing your activities, community service, jobs—and a few pluses the teacher might not know about. And plan ahead. A rushed writer is rarely as persuasive as one who has had mulling time.

Depth beats breadth. While it might seem impressive to join six clubs and volunteer at a soup kitchen in your senior year, admissions officers can see through such a ploy. Besides, it's unnecessary, says Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington educational consultant and the coauthor of College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family. He notes: "It's important to be well lopsided rather than well rounded. That enables you to focus on what you're good at." Adds Caltech's Bischoff: "Applicants worry far too much—do they have the service and the leadership, and are they a musician, and, boy, if they could pick up a sport." Like Goodman, he believes in doing less but doing it well. But avoid being one-dimensional. "If your presentation is one-sided," says Liston, "start working on other sides. Show that you're not just that one thing." Anything you're passionate about has merit, including an after-school job.

The interview. Some interviews are informational, some are evaluative; some schools encourage them, others don't give them at all. Best advice: Take any face time offered unless you know you'll be putting your worst foot forward. Goodman's examples: If you got into serious trouble in high school and "the details are messy," or you are inclined to demonstrate disinterest because "your parents are making you apply to that college," skip it. Otherwise, one-on-ones are a way to underscore your desire to attend. Before you go, polish with practice: Rehearse your questions and talking points with an adult. Communicate not just your strengths but also your enthusiasm. Say clearly and politely, 'This is what I've achieved, and I'm proud of it,' " says Goodman. If your interview takes place on campus, schedule it toward the end of your visit. "After you've gone on the tour and met some kids," says Sanchez of Woodward Academy, "you've got something to talk about."

Full disclosure. Did your stellar academic record nose-dive one semester? Is there an obvious hole in your coursework? A suspension? The temptation is to hope it goes unnoticed, but it won't. The best approach is full disclosure. Add a letter explaining the situation. But for it to have a mitigating effect, Sanchez says, "you have to have recovered" from whatever tripped you up, accepted the consequences, and done what you could to make amends. Goodman says: "You've got to show us that you learned something." If you got suspended from school for drinking, for example, "and the punishment is 20 community service hours, do 50." And don't whine. If your grades took a tumble, don't expect admissions staff "to be moved by normal things that happen in life," says Muñoz. " 'My boyfriend broke up with me' is not going to cut it, nor is 'I overextended myself' or 'I got really involved with being the lead person for the prom.' "

My bad... There's you, the serious college applicant. Then there's the other you—the one with the E-mail address and voice-mail greeting that your friends find hilarious. Maybe you even put up those sassy beach pictures on Facebook. Admissions staffers—many of them fairly recent graduates themselves—sometimes check out social networking sites. So, if you're Jekyll and Hyde, clean up your split personality. "Students don't always realize the extreme public nature of the Web," says Gramling. "They say, 'Oh no, no, that's my site for me and my friends.' " Before posting on MySpace, consider: Are these photos you would show to your mom? If the answer's no, you probably don't want the admissions committee at your No. 1 college to get a peek, either.

A word to the wise. In the spirit of trying to see your child in the round, a small but growing number of schools are asking for recs from the 'rents. To talk about your son or daughter, advises Sanchez, "think about the three or four things people always brag to you about your child." Then, give examples to show how these characteristics come through: "Suzy is a great organizer. She used the whole senior class to help the lower school clean up the playground on Earth Day." And remark on whatever your child's passion may be: "He loves to play his guitar, and we're going to miss music in the house 24-7." Remember, your job is to present your vision by providing the facts, not to sell. So feel free to say, "She has the messiest room I've ever seen." "You can say stuff," Sanchez says. "They know they're not perfect. They're teenagers."

Remember to stay on the sidelines, cheering but not overwhelmingly. And no matter how anxious you get, resist calling the admissions office pretending to be your child, not realizing that your voice sounds more like a 40-year-old's than a 17-year-old's. Believe us. It happens.

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