Time is running out: As you no doubt know if you’re a college senior (or related to one), college application deadlines are fast approaching. And what you do in the next several weeks could still tip the scales in your favor.
Right now, you’re probably worried that your dream school won’t want you. So maybe it’ll make you feel better to know that schools will soon start worrying about whether you really want them. To tip this balance of power in your favor, you need to think carefully about how to present yourself to each school.
Happily, that’s not as hard as it sounds. Read on for seven application strategies that will make your applications rise to the top of the pile.
1) Find out what your favorite schools care about most.
You’ve heard the debates: The college essay is more important than ever before. No, it really doesn’t matter; it’s all about numbers. A low SAT score isn’t a deal-breaker. Except when it can be. The college admissions process is a total crapshoot. Actually, strategy does matter and isn’t that hard to execute.
The truth is, none of this conventional wisdom is true or false across the board because various institutions use a wide range of criteria and weigh them in different ways.
The good news: You can just look up how your favorite schools do it.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy, nationally-recognized college expert of The College Solution, recommends checking each school’s “common data set.” There, schools assemble a wealth of information about demographics, academic offerings, student life, tuition—and how they weigh different admissions criteria.
Many schools post their common data set on their websites; search for it and then check section C7, “Relative Importance of Common Academic and Non-Academic Admission Criteria.” Or check collegedata.com to compare different schools, O’Shaughnessy says.
2) Narrow your personal essay topic.
“A lot of students do a miserable job of writing their college essay,” O’Shaughnessy says. “This is one of the ways to let a school know more about you, and students often do a very generic or very boring essay.”
The most common mistake? Trying to jam the essay with too much information. “The best essays are highly focused,” O’Shaughnessy says. For example, instead of writing about your love of music, O’Shaughnessy suggests focusing on just one event, like how you overcame stage fright at your senior recital.
Peter Van Buskirk, former dean of admission at Franklin and Marshall College and current president of Best College Fit, an advocacy group in support of students and parents in the college application process, agrees that it’s a mistake to just repeat what’s already in your resume.
“Take me to some part of your life experience I cannot find anywhere else in the application,” Van Buskirk says. “Get people to see the invisible you.”
3) Write shorter paragraphs—with more dashes.
You’ve got your winning topic. Now make sure the admissions officer will actually read your essay.
“The mistake that kids make is they don’t think creatively about their presentation,” Van Buskirk says. “This is a creative process. It’s not an academic process. If they have any level of creativity within them, they need to let it show.”
Start by forgetting what your English teacher may have taught you about writing. A lot of applicants submit personal essays with an ploddingly academic, five-paragraph format, Van Buskirk says. “It won’t hurt, but it doesn’t help,” he adds.
Instead, break up your paragraphs. Try using dashes, italics… even ellipses. Experiment with tone and style.
“What kids need to remember is their applications will be read by tired eyes,” Van Buskirk says. “When a set of tired eyes comes across an essay with three or four paragraphs, 150 words each, that’s dense stuff. Tired eyes wander away from it. It’s important to establish a flow.”
4) Rewrite your response to this question.
Many schools ask some version of the question, “Why do you want to go to this school?” If you could sub in the name of any other school and it would still make sense, throw out the essay and start over. Really.
“Kids tend to just do a boilerplate answer to all of them, like, ‘The academics are great, you’re located in a city, you have great faculty,'” O’Shaughnessy says. “That could describe any number of schools. [Admissions officers] will pick that up immediately.”
Van Buskirk says what the school is really asking with this question is “If we admit you to this institution, what do we get? What do you, the student, have to offer us that is different than the next guy?”
Be very specific and do some research. For example, don’t just say you want to major in neuroscience. Talk about how your volunteer work with disabled children has inspired you to pursue that field and how a particular academic program at the university could help you develop your expertise, Van Buskirk says.
The key is to demonstrate that you have thought about how this particular institution is uniquely able to help you achieve your goals.
5) Either skip this question, or double down.
Some schools, and some financial aid forms, will ask you to list other schools that you’re applying to. This question poses some risk, so tread carefully.
Most schools aim to maximize their “yield,” i.e. the percentage of students admitted who actually attend. So you could gain an edge if a school believes it’s one of your top choices. But if admissions officers have reason to think you’ll go elsewhere—if you reveal a preference for other comparably competitive schools, for example—they may turn you down even if you otherwise meet their criteria.
If your heart is absolutely set on a particular school, you may want to rank it at the top of these lists even at the risk of alienating other institutions. It also can help when it comes to aid because your second or third choices may try to lure you with money. Scott Bierman, president of Beloit College, recently told MONEY’s Kim Clark that his school’s best merit aid offers go to top students who have also ranked Beloit in their top three picks. (That’s why it’s helpful to check that “common data set” and see how much a school considers the “level of applicant’s interest.”)
On the other hand, some experts think ranking a school high on these lists can hurt you even when it comes to merit aid. “The No. 1 choice school will say, ‘They really want to go here, so we don’t have to give them money,'” O’Shaughnessy says.
The upshot? “There is no good that can come to the student in providing that information,” argues Van Buskirk. “My advice to the student, when the school asks, is to leave it blank.”
Sometimes, of course, you have no choice. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) asks for a list of schools. In that case, you just have to realize that you might be showing your hand. You can try to maintain your poker face by putting the schools in alphabetical order. Just know that admissions officers may still draw inferences about your list.
6) Explain any weaknesses.
Maybe your grades dipped one semester. Maybe you didn’t do as well on the SAT as you had expected. Maybe you got into some trouble at school. Providing an explanation can make a big difference.
“Students need to understand admissions officers are cynics by nature,” Van Buskirk says. “In many applications, the student has an opportunity to complete an optional essay. I strongly recommend the students do that. They don’t want to put the reader in the position of having to piece it together themselves.”
The optional essay is an opportunity to disclose a learning disability, explain other medical or family issues that have impacted your performance, or talk about what you’ve done to make amends after a disciplinary issue, O’Shaughnessy says. Make the essay about “how you’ve overcome the challenges other kids don’t have,” O’Shaughnessy says. “Those are things that can help you get in.”
7) Don’t think you’re done when you hit “submit.”
At competitive schools, your make-or-break moment might not be the day you submit your application, or the day an admissions officer first reads your application, or the day you get moved to the admit list. It might be a moment during the last two weeks of March, called the “move down weeks,” Van Buskirk says.
That’s the moment when enrollment managers often realize they have too many applicants on their admit lists, and they risk overspending their financial aid budgets. Representatives for each geographical region might be instructed to move a certain number of students in their area from the admit list to the waitlist, and the college might reduce the amount of aid it had planned to offer certain students.
“It is at this point when the little things can make a difference,” Van Buskirk says.
Here’s how Van Buskirk says you can stay off the waitlist: First, keep your grades up. Second, keep in touch. If you receive email surveys and other communications that prompt a response, respond. If you have the option of interviewing with an alum, sign up. If you can visit, pack your bag. If you have a question about the school that you can’t answer with some Googling, send your regional recruiter an email.
“A big mistake is the students assume that once the application is submitted, they don’t have to manage it anymore,” Van Buskirk says. “The whole business of predicting who will enroll has become really big business. Kids need to make sure they continue to be alert.”
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