How to Put Together the "Perfect" College Application
Zaira Santiago, Director of College Advising
The months of October and November can be particularly chaotic in college counseling offices. Our days are full of back-to-back meetings with anxious students - and sometimes their parents - as they get ready to submit applications with early deadlines. Students spend whatever precious little time they have trying to achieve “perfection,” polishing their applications, obsessing over every word, and trying to find the magical combination of activities and accomplishments that will make it gain an unanimous “admit” recommendation from the admissions committee. In turn, we spend our days - and often evenings - looking over applications, reviewing essays, and trying to convince students that who they are and what they have accomplished in the 17 years they have walked this earth is “good enough” to gain admission to college.
One quick look at some of the questions that students are tasked with answering during this process is enough to understand the stress and anxiety they often experience. For example, Wake Forest has an 8-question writing supplement that spans the gamut, asking students to title their autobiography, imagine who their graduation speaker would be, list the the last five books they read, create a top-ten list with a theme of their choosing and - in no more than 150 words - describe what they “have you done to challenge or change that which outrages you.” Some colleges take a more abstract approach, like the University of Chicago, which asks, “what is square one, and can you actually go back to it?” Others are more lighthearted, like Lehigh, which asks, “what is your favorite ‘Bazinga’ moment?” or the University of Richmond, which asks applicants to “tell us about Spiders” (a reference to their mascot).
But ultimately, it’s important to remember that - yes, perhaps through a somewhat convoluted and flawed system - colleges admission officers are, for the most part, just trying to get a sense of who students are outside of their academic record and what has motivated them to do the things they have done. Their job is not an easy one - they have to ensure that their institutions’ enrollment needs are being met and that there is diversity of background, thought and experience in the student body, but also that the applicants they admit are a good match for the academic rigor, mission and values of their schools. Trying to “game the system” or trick them into believing the applicant is something that they are not is not only not likely to work, but can backfire.
Below are a few more reminders for students to ensure that the college application is “perfect.”
Be authentic. Admissions officers are experts at sussing out the “list checkers;” they can easily differentiate between the insincere, pedantic and superficial from the authentic. Don’t try to impress them or write what you think they want to hear, but rather reflect on your experiences and what you are hoping to get out of a college education.
It’s OK to sound like a 17-year old. Nothing raises a red flag faster for an admissions officer than when an application sounds like it was completed by a middle-aged person with years of life experience. There certainly should be a level of formality to the writing in an application, but ultimately, it has to sound like a high school student completed it.
More is not always better. Most admissions officers have a short amount of time to read through an application - some as little as 15 minutes. They can’t always devote more time to an application just because it has more recommendations or more example of a student’s academic work. Provide only what each school asks for; if a college is open to receiving additional materials, they will let it be known.
Trust your instincts. While it’s OK - and helpful - to have friends, teachers and family members look over your application, be careful to not lose your voice in all the revisions. Be open to constructive criticism, but trust your instinct in terms of what you want to say and how you want to say it. Read every part of the application out loud to yourself. If it doesn’t sound like you, go back and try to simplify or ask yourself what exactly it is that you are trying to say.
Have faith in yourself and the process! If you have done your due diligence, you will be applying to a list of schools that are a good match for your personality, your ability, your interests and your academic goals. A school that is the right fit for you will not only appreciate you for who you are, but will see your potential for growth, what you can contribute to their community and what you can accomplish there. At the end of the day, you should have faith that being perfectly imperfect is perfect enough.
Located in West Hartford, CT just steps from Blue Back Square, Kingswood Oxford is a private school inspiring co-ed day students in grades 6-12 with a college preparatory curriculum. Empowered students become clear confident communicators, resourceful problem-solvers, and ethical leaders. KO: where unlimited potential meets endless opportunities.