Biggest Mistakes Students Make in the Admissions Process

“What is the biggest mistake students make in the admissions process?”

This question was recently posted by an Independent College Counselor on one of the online forums that I follow. It received 53 replies from admissions officers and the answers will surprise you.

Of course, many mentioned the importance of context–explaining your circumstances, especially if there are financial difficulties or other personal hardships. But, hands down, the biggest pet peeve is how students communicate.

These days, students are so used to texting that they never learn how to use the basic tools of business communication like email and phone calls. Yet, these skills are absolutely necessary for everything from internships to summer jobs to college apps. But, don’t take my word for it. Take theirs!

According to admissions officers, these are some of the typical mistakes that students make:

  • Not using or checking their email, especially when colleges are sending information about their application status.
  • Using a high school email account that will expire when they graduate.
  • Multiple email accounts. Students should create one account and use it when they inquire, when they apply, and when they register.
  • Emails with nicknames or funny phrases like
  • Not using/checking their assigned college email once they’ve been accepted. 
  • Not having voicemail set up. Believe it or not, there are some instances when a college might need to contact you for additional information.
  • Letting parents fill out the application or contact the college on their behalf.
  • Not visiting the school (or at least taking a virtual tour) or meeting the local rep if they come to your school.
  • Being afraid to say “no.” It is very important for students to clearly communicate when they are no longer interested. That simple courtesy allows the college to stop spending time (and resources) reaching out to uninterested students and also opens up space for students who are.

Special thanks to Ashley Allen Seeley for posting the original question and sparking a very interesting conversation!

Summer Reading!

There are eight Personal Insight Questions on the University of California’s freshman application. The very first one is about leadership: “Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolved disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.” To answer this question, I ask my students to walk me through their activities list.

We look at clubs, sports, and class projects that might involve working in groups or, ideally, being in charge of a group. I ask a lot of questions about their experience: What type of leadership skills did the situation require? Did you have these skills when you started? Did you develop these skills along the way?

Most students are very humble. They recognize where they need to improve. Some look forward to returning to the same activity–sometimes to the same role–to try to do better senior year. The lucky ones might find a mentor, but many will learn (or flounder) on the job, with little support or no direction.

Schools don’t provide leadership training for students, like workplaces do for employees. Still, smart students can take advantage of all the training resources out there. Here are a few that come highly recommended by my college counseling pals. Why not read one of these books over the summer? Go back to school with new skills to test out–and new stories to tell on your UC application!

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Steve Covey

Good to Great by Jim Collins

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Pour Your Heart into It by Howard Schultz

Colleges look for students who are curious, who love to learn, and who are self motivated. Reading one of these books proves you are all three!

Hard Work Doesn’t Always Pay Off

Rachel Simmons’s article “Tell Kids the Truth: Hard Word Doesn’t Always Pay Off” in the July 1 issue of Time Magazine is a useful reality check for parents. While this article isn’t specifically about college admissions, Rachel’s insights made me think of the challenge of managing expectations during the application process.

Teachers and parents everywhere tell their students to work hard, get straight A’s, take lots of AP classes, and get top test scores. Do this, and your college dreams will come true. Colleges fuel this mindset, sending their slick brochures and personalized letters. “Dear (name), you have been selected for priority…”

High expectations start even earlier, often in middle school and sometimes even in elementary, with students wearing their favorite college sweatshirt on “college day.” In one of my creative writing workshops, a 7th grader in a USC sweatshirt told me he was going there. Not that he would one day apply to USC. Nope. He was definitely going there.

The unfortunate reality is that college admissions is unpredictable and often misleading. A first step in deciding where to apply is researching the college’s admissions criteria. If you meet their minimum GPA and test score requirements, you qualify for admissions, right? Wrong. It means, you qualify to apply. Colleges like USC admit just a tiny percentage of those who apply–and everyone who applies will have roughly the same GPA and test scores as you do!

Rachel’s article is about what we can (and cannot) control. It opens with a star college athlete upset about her performance on the field. Rachel writes, “This student, like many I teach, believes she should be able to control the outcomes of her life by virtue of her hard work.”

It’s the same with admissions. All through high school, students are in control. They decided what classes to take, what sports to play, what clubs to join. Many approach college applications with the same excitement. They are choosing a college, but actually the college chooses you!

The bottom line is that students (and parents, and teachers, and counselors) have zero control over the college admissions process. Following the right steps doesn’t guarantee success. As Rachel Simmons explains in her article, “you can do everything in your power and still fail.”

Parents, I know we all want the best for our kids. Just please keep in mind that the college application process is an emotional roller coaster. It will be filled with exciting acceptances and crushing rejections. Adjusting your expectations (and helping your kids adjust theirs) will help you prepare for the bumpy road ahead. Good luck!

Finally! More Choices!

College isn’t for everyone. It’s true. So, why do so many high school students think it’s the only path? Because business leaders, school counselors, and parents keep telling them it is.

Guess what? The conversation is about to change. Get ready for a lot of talk about the trades. It’s about time!

When my kids were young, I was so excited to learn that the local high school had a woodshop. But, by the time they got to high school, it had been converted into a computer lab. Of course! Given the emphasis on technology and the need to train students for careers in science, technology, and math, it was inevitable.

But now, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. Stories about a shortage of workers in the trades are starting to emerge, along with changes in education policy designed to help. Here’s one from NPR.

Anyone interested in the topic will certainly enjoy this Roadtrip Nation episode, where students travel the U.S. interviewing welders, chefs, designers, animal behavior specialists, make-up artists, and–yes!–woodworkers!

Parents, please share with your kids. Especially those who might be facing endless hours of tutors, test-prep, and study just to get the numbers needed for college admission.

If their heart isn’t really in it, maybe they can find a different path to success and happiness.

Class of 2018 – Results!

“Hey There! It’s your essay coach. I wanted to say hello and wish you luck as you embark on your freshman year! Which school did you end up choosing?”

I hit send and wait. As my phone starts to ping—all smiley faces and exclamation points—I sit back with a big smile on my own face. Another application season has come and gone. Another crop of wonderful students is off to make their college dreams come true.

This season, I worked with transfer students from OCC and the University of Vermont, as well as high school seniors from Edison, Los Alamitos, Marina, Millikan, Palos Verdes, Poly, Whitney, and Wilson. It was an especially difficult season for students applying to the UCs, which reported a record number of applicants from in state, out of state, and beyond. Qualified students (who clearly fit the academic profile and who were easily admitted to other schools with similar academic profiles) weren’t getting into the UCs. Not just my students, everyone’s students. This left a lot of seniors in our area disappointed, a lot of their parents frustrated, and a lot of their counselors confused. After some failed appeals and some serious soul searching, all of my students ended up choosing a school they believe is a perfect fit for them. I am pleased to report: everyone is happy.

Since prospective clients sometimes want to know, here’s a recap of where this year’s group is going. But, as I always explain to new clients, the credit goes to my students, not to me. They did the hard work to earn the acceptances. They made the most of their high school years. They had remarkable stories to tell. All I did was listen.

Schools in California: San Diego State (two), SLO (two), UC Davis (two), UCLA (two), UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, USF, USC (three!)

Schools Outside California: Cornell, Emerson, Harvard, Loyola University Chicago, TCU, U Minnesota, U Oregon, U Washington (three!)

Bon Voyage!

An Admissions Officer’s Take on Activities

Staying up to date on the latest trends in college admissions is an important part of my job. Through conferences, industry groups, and news feeds, I constantly gain new insights from experts in the field, including admissions officers and college counselors across the country.

The Inside Scoop on Activities

A recent favorite comes from Tulane University.   This Will Look Great on my Application, Right? by Jeff Schiffman, Director of Admissions at Tulane, is a breath of fresh air!  I refer to this article often when speaking with student groups and parents because his wonderful advice applies to students everywhere, not just those applying to Tulane.

Mr. Schiffman reminds us that he is not looking for well-rounded students. He is looking to build a well-rounded class of students. Bottom line, admissions officers don’t want a laundry list of activities, and it’s okay to be doing an activity “just because.”

A Great Read for Students…and their Parents!

If you are a parent, this article will ease your mind about the college admissions process.  If you are a student, this article will help you make thoughtful choices regarding extra curriculars and your high school experience in general.

I guarantee you’ll be breathing a sigh of relief when you are done reading.  Enjoy!