By Rett Fisher
U.S. News & World Report
For the class of 2016, colleges and universities across the nation expect to see a record number of applications. Most students do a good job of putting their academic records in the best possible light, but there are always some who make basic mistakes that drive admissions counselors crazy and (if applicants only knew) doom their chances of being accepted. U.S. News talked to admissions officers around the country and asked them to share some of the common missteps by students during the application process.
Director of undergraduate admission, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland
Being rude to staff members: One of the things that I like to see are those little gestures that families, students, or parents send along the way: a thank-you card after they come for a visit, or expressing that they had a great day here. But I've seen it go really far to the other extreme. One of the cornerstones in the admissions office is the frontline support staff who have been in their roles for 20, 30, or more years. You can imagine all the things that they've seen.
They are people who love this work, and they love the students. A few years ago, a student really just kind of laid into one of these staff members on the phone. He was so vitriolic-using foul language. What ended up happening was that we withdrew the application because that was just an outpouring of disrespect.
Having unrealistic expectations: There's kind of this expectation among some students and parents that they will get something-whether that's a scholarship or a decision going their way that isn't necessarily in line with that student's credentials. We admitted a student from the wait list who was very enthusiastic, very excited to be here. But then a day or so later, the response was disappointment that she didn't get a scholarship from us after being admitted from the wait list. And it wasn't an issue of financing her education, because she had a nice need-based financial aid package. It was that she was not given this "honor" of being awarded a scholarship, which I thought was kind of bizarre for a student admitted off the wait list.
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Assistant director of admission, Colorado College, Colorado Springs
Feigning enthusiasm to score points: Sometimes, frankly, students talk about the thing that they think is supposed to be important rather than what is really important to them. There's a student that I interviewed like five years ago. We talked for probably the first 10 minutes about this Ecuador trip that she made, and it was a very lackluster interview to that point. She wasn't excited; she was saying what she thought she was supposed to say, and then we got onto surfing, and the eyes light up, and you're like, "Oh, you actually are a passionate person; you're just not passionate about going to Ecuador." And that was big.
If we hadn't gotten to that point, she wouldn't have been accepted. You don't want people who are unenthused about everything because presumably they're going to be unenthused once they get to your campus, too. But once you see that the light can turn on, then it makes a big difference.
Dean of admissions and enrollment planning, Marquette University, Milwaukee
Allowing your parent to apply for you: Parents are really inserting themselves much too much in this process. While parents can be helpful and should certainly be there to be support for the students, the students are the ones that are going to college. One story that illustrates how this has gone off-kilter is I talked to a mom who was pretty upset because her son had not been accepted to Marquette.
When undergraduate students or freshmen apply for admission, they apply to one of our seven undergraduate colleges. So they must indicate that they're applying not only to Marquette but to a specific college. The mom was upset because she said, "I'm sure that my son did not apply to this college," and I pulled up his application and, sure enough, he had applied to that college. So I'm having a conversation with her, and she's getting more and more frustrated and saying, "No, no, I know that's not the case!" And, at one point in the conversation, she just blurted out, "Well, I know that's not the case because I filled out his application." And there was just this awkward silence on the phone. We ended the conversation at that point, but I guess it was illustrative about how this is not the way things should be.
Missing deadlines: At Marquette we have one admissions deadline: It's December 1, and we hammer that point in every publication and every presentation we do. December 1 is almost like a mantra. We say it over and over, and clearly not everybody is listening. Several years ago, we had a huge snowstorm in Milwaukee, and the whole university was actually closed. I think we got about 15 inches of snow on December 1. And literally there were people who, you could tell by the footprints in the snow, were walking up the steps of our building, shaking the doors, you know, "Let me in! I have to drop off my application!" in a complete panic.
Our voicemail had hundreds of messages of people calling. So the whole idea is that college admissions is very deadline-oriented, and students and parents really need to pay attention to them, and that was really a good example of how they're not. I was at home checking voice mail messages remotely, and I was like, "This is crazy." So yeah, we did extend it one day, but waiting until December 1 was way too late.
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Dean of admissions, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Not following directions: Whenever I give advice to students, I want them to be aware that admissions officers take care to hear their voice and get to know them, but our time is limited-perhaps 15 minutes per application. Through the Common Application and the Penn Supplement, we know where to find certain pieces of information. When an admissions officer needs to get to that information, seeing the term "See attached résumé" on the application means we need to spend time searching instead of learning. This is a minor annoyance for officers, but more problematic for applicants. Focus our attention in the areas provided, and utilize the supplemental information question of the Common Application or arts, athletic, or other supplements to provide greater detail and context.
Senior associate director of admission, Tulane University, New Orleans
Being dishonest: My No. 1 pet peeve is when you read the essay about how badly a student would love to go to Vanderbilt University and you work for Tulane. It happens a lot more than you would think: Students use a generic essay, and they don't spend the time to really look through it and all of the sudden they've written the wrong school. It looks very bad, and it shows a lack of time committed to the whole process. In the case of one, the student had been in touch with me all along and was very passionate about Tulane, got on the wait list, and then wrote the wrong name on the wait list E-mail. Obviously, it will help your admission for the school to know that it's one of your top choices, but please don't lie.
Associate provost and director of undergraduate admissions, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Trying too hard to curry favor: Students can definitely go overboard. Everyone here sympathizes with how hard the students work. They try to distinguish themselves, but you don't have to put up a billboard in front of the office to get noticed. A few years ago a person I worked with had a strange experience: A student actually found out where he lived and sneaked around to the back of his house, left a cake inside his fenced backyard on his picnic table, and the cake was decorated in some way encouraging the guy to admit him to the school. This all seemed kind of creepy-the student was sneaking into a gated backyard-and also not very smart, since if you leave a cake outdoors, you're going to make a lot of ants happy.
In contrast, this year I had a student write a very long, but very sincere and convincing letter about why Carolina was her choice above all others. It was an old-fashioned approach, but the evidence that she gave us that she had approached her college search so thoughtfully was convincing and persuasive. Somebody making a cake, somebody sending a postcard every day, somebody decorating a life-size poster of herself-these things are interesting and creative, but they're not as persuasive as evidence that a student is approaching her education search thoughtfully and wisely.
Avoid pretentiousness: I think people do all sorts of strange things sometimes in applications. I once read an application where the student referred to himself consistently in the third person-very much like a sports interview, except I think he repeated his entire name. You know he had some long name like John Wilson Doe III, so over and over and over again he repeated his whole name, in every essay, everything that he wrote. It was a little strange.
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Christine Van Gieson
Director of admissions, University of California-Santa Barbara
Being disrespectful: My biggest peeve is parents and students who are very disrespectful of the staff throughout the process. I understand that they are upset, disappointed, etc., but there are some people who are out of control. We had a staff member, for example, say she had had two of the rudest people-they were both parents, I think-that she had ever had in her 18 years of working here. They kept her on the phone for an hour. One, they were waiting on a decision and they wanted to argue about that, and the other was about a denial. People take it personally; their egos are involved.
In this one instance the staff member said that the parent constantly referred to the number of incompetent staff we have here. That is probably my biggest overall peeve-that people can't be professional or respectful with the staff who are trying to do their best and trying to be helpful. But when somebody is haranguing them like that, it really makes it very difficult. We received 63,000 applications this year, and it's a lot of work.
Making ill-advised attempts at humor: One of our readers gave me this from a recent application: "My personal quality that I would most pride myself on is my love-making skills. All the ladies call me the love doctor, and I am nothing short of it. I'm always working hard to keep myself going above and beyond anyone's wildest dreams! Now, if I'm this dedicated to sex, just imagine how productive I could be as a student at your fine school!"
This essay is not helpful. It's not a good use of the real estate. He certainly has a sense of humor, but his love life wouldn't necessarily demonstrate his capability for doing well academically. It certainly doesn't add any important information that might be helpful for us to know about him, and it actually might make us a little afraid for the student body.
We often tell students that some people can do a very funny write-up, but there's the danger of it being misinterpreted. We usually urge students, unless they're really great at writing humor, that they avoid trying it out on their personal statement.
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