THE BLOG

5 Last Things You Should Know About Completing College Applications

12/03/2012 03:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2013

December is clearly an important holiday season with Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza and New Year's Eve all taking place. However, for high school seniors it is also a "big-time" for college admissions, with many applications due as of January 1, 2, 5, 10 and 15. With deadlines just around the corner, this is a friendly reminder that there is still time for students to give their applications more than just a last minute polish.

A couple of weeks ago, I offered "Seven Really Smart Things to Do when Filling Out College Applications." Here are five more things to know (and do), a little icing for the admissions cake.

1. What critical factors do admissions offices look for?
In the newly released, National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) 2012 State of College Admission, some interesting, new trends are identified.

  • All colleges, public and private, report five factors as the most important in admissions decisions: a) grades in college prep courses, b) strength of curriculum, c) SAT/ACT test scores d) cumulative GPA, and e) demonstrated interest in attending a college.
  • Private colleges, especially smaller schools, are more likely to take an "holistic" approach to admissions and also be concerned with a) essays, b) interviews, 3) counselor and teacher recommendations and 4) extracurricular activities.

The big surprise in the report is the marked increased in importance of students showing demonstrated interest, that is, "The quantity and quality of contact students have with colleges that indicates their perceived likelihood to enroll should they be offered admissions to a college." What in world does that mean? Simply said: it's very important to show each college you apply to (even if it is at the bottom of your college list) that it is a top choice and why. Since you never know who is going to accept you, all colleges on your list should be serious contenders.

2. Carefully craft what you say in applications about any challenges you face.
College applications often provide students with space to deal with life challenges they have faced, be it learning or physical disabilities, or a terrible car accident, major family issues, such as death of a family member or separation/divorce, or Acts of God such as floods, tornados or a Hurricane Sandy. Be sure that explanations about your challenges don't come across as whiney or "poor me," but rather as heartfelt, descriptive accounts of what happened, including what you learned from the experience.

3. Identifying yourself with an ethnic group.
Even though by law you don't have to answer questions regarding your racial or ethnic origins, if your family background is African American, Hispanic or Native American, it is clearly to your advantage to note this on the application. The general rule about identifying yourself with a racial/ethnic group is that you are one quarter African American or Hispanic, and one quarter or one eighth Native American, although some colleges require actual tribal certification of one's Native American status. If your family is of a mixed background, then identify the different categories or explain what they are in the "Other" section.

Don't forget to note if any language other than English is spoken at home.

4. How to answer the application question, "Where else are you applying?"
At first sight, this question may seem an innocent inquiry and sometimes it is; but be careful. How you answer it could affect your admission chances. Colleges not only want to keep tabs on what their competition is, but some also use your answer to interpret interest level in their school (keep in mind what I said about demonstrated interest). For example, if you identify colleges you are applying to that are way higher in test scores and GPA than the college for whom you are answering the "where else" question, this could be interpreted that their college is a back-up school for you. Colleges are not interested in students who aren't really interested in them. The smart thing to do is identify colleges and universities that are comparable to the school to which you are applying.

One way of handling this question is to say something such as, "While your college has always been a top choice of mine, to make sure I have other viable choices, I am also applying to A, B, C and D."

5. The taboo subjects for college application essays.
While admissions officers are thrilled to come upon an essay that offers a fresh take, or a new, even eccentric theme, there are some essay subjects that are riskier than others. Don't write about anything that is "full of yourself," silly, stupid, gross or false. Also avoid subjects that might make admissions readers uncomfortable or raise red flags about your future behavior in college. Here some topics that are best NOT to write about on applications:

  • Sex
  • Your use of alcohol or drugs
  • Personal struggles with bulimia, anorexia, a mental illness or attempted suicide
  • Your family's dysfunction, especially if you whine and moan about it
  • Girl or boyfriend problems
  • Revelations about stealing or shoplifting (Of course, you must truthfully answer any application question about being put on probation, suspension, removal, dismissal or expulsion at any educational institution from 9th grade on or having been found guilty of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime.)
  • Negative comments or attitudes about anything, especially individuals or groups

Having said that, there are few essay topics about which clever, gifted writers cannot write, including taboo subjects.

For more information about what to know, do and when about "demonstrated interest" and completing college applications, go to my website, www.admissionpossible.com