Applying for college? It pays to follow rules
By Jay Mathews
One lovely morning last spring, sitting in the garden of a college admissions office in California, I heard something disturbing about college applications in the computer age.
Admissions counselor Whitney Jenkins at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, Calif., was conducting an information session for visiting students and parents. She had been so thorough that her audience had run out of questions.
"Maybe you would like to hear some of the things that drive us wild when we read applications," she said.
"What drives me crazy is when we ask you to follow directions in filling out the application and you don't do so."
What could she mean? She went on to explain, and I have saved her words until now, the beginning of application writing season.
According to Jenkins, the slimiest villain in the application drama is the résumé, a once exclusively professional device that has become so common among teenagers that it is beginning to corrupt college applications.
"The worst is in reporting extracurricular activities," she said. "If you want to provide more information, that is fine. But some will not fill out the actual boxes in our application and instead send us a résumé. If we have to spend 10 minutes translating your resume into the categories on our form, that is 10 minutes less quality time to consider the merits of your application."
She moved on to spelling and grammar, confirming what several admissions officers have told me. Mistakes are very common, even in the age of spell-check software and parents eager to proofread.
A spelling error is a small thing. Some grammatical errors, in this inexact age, often are overlooked. But if a mistake stops an admissions office application reader for even a second, it creates an impression that is hard to erase.
The same goes for decorative fonts and eye-catching typography. One admissions officer expressed dismay at an essay that had been written in spiral form, forcing her to rotate the page in order to read the words that swirled in steadily tightening circles.
One of the counselors at my daughter's school said that some student handwriting is so bad that she enlisted one sure-handed student to fill out portions of classmates' applications best done by hand.
The counselor makes each offending applicant pay the copyist $5, as a reminder that they should have practiced their penmanship more in the third grade.
It is also a mistake to fill the extracurricular activity spaces with every club, hobby and bake sale on which you have ever spent an afternoon. Admissions officials recommend against accumulating these small credits, walk-on parts in the drama of adolescent life, if they keep you from focusing on three or four key activities.
If two of those activities are especially demanding, such as running your own business, coaching a Little League team or writing and directing your own play then that is really all you need. The deeper you go, the more time you spend, the more passion you show for at least one of your activities, the better off you are.
Two good activities are often sufficient, because admissions committees have gotten into the habit of defining applicants with two descriptive terms that summarize their greatest strengths. One applicant is called the poet quarterback. Another is the carpenter debater. A third is the dress-designing science fair winner. If you have two activities strong enough to label yourself in that way, you are in good shape.
But you have to tell the truth. There is a temptation, as you review your life outside the classroom, to exaggerate just a little bit.
That's lying. Don't lie. It won't work.
Résumé padding will look false no matter how cleverly you package it. You may think you have a free pass to inflate your accomplishments because the admissions officer reading your file will not have the time or the inclination to check every detail. But that is because you don't understand how the process works.
If you are artificially enhancing your list of activities, you are probably doing so because you are applying to a very selective school and think you need every possible advantage. Unhappily for you, those are the colleges with the best admissions officers. The one reading your file may not know you, but she will probably know at least one counselor at your school and will be quick to pick up the phone.
This is doubly true if you have a good chance of getting in, for you will likely be in competition with a high school classmate for that spot. In those circumstances, very careful comparisons will be made.
The admissions officer will call the counselor to discuss the leading applicants from your school. Which has been the most conscientious in his school duties? Which has had the best ideas and the most admirable record for working with others?
See what is coming? The admissions officer will read back to the counselor the activities you have listed on your form.
Wise applicants who wish to stop worrying once they have filed their applications would do well not only to follow all the instructions but circulate their applications among their friends before mailing them.