One thing that you absolutely DO NOT want to do is confuse college admissions officers by presenting contradictory – or inconsistent, and, thus, possibly contradictory – information about yourself in your college applications. And there are multiple opportunities for mistakes in most college applications.
Conversely – and fortunately – those multiple opportunities to screw up are also opportunities to present a consistent, personal picture, including what you value. Such a presentation of yourself helps admissions officers decide a very important question: What is our college likely to get in the way of a student, person, and contributor to our community if we extend to this applicant an invitation to enroll?
Because the Common Application is the most widely used one, we’re going to focus on several spots – but not all – in it where there are opportunities to present a consistent picture of yourself — or shoot yourself in the foot.
The first of those opportunities: when you’re asked to list your current or most recent year’s courses. A schedule that’s largely devoid of – for example – STEM classes, or that shows only lower level (e.g., non-honors or non-AP) STEM classes, isn’t going to mesh well with your subsequent expression in the application of an interest in STEM or anything medical. Be sure to list your most important core academic courses first.
The next opportunity comes in the Future Plans section where you’re asked to indicate your “Career interest.” The default is “Undecided,” and in part because it’s the #1 choice of students who are applying, it’s okay to pick that one. However, there are dozens of other, fairly specific choices (along with “Other”), one of which is “Business owner or proprietor,” and it’s going to look inconsistent – or, maybe worse, sloppy or lacking in thoroughness – to choose “Undecided” and follow that elsewhere – in your essay, for example – with an indication of your strong desire to become an entrepreneur.
We’re not done with the Future Plans section, because the other question there asks you to choose the “Highest degree you intend to earn.” The default, which is “Bachelor’s (BA, BS)”, says little more than that you’re not planning to drop out before earning a four-year degree, and that’s not saying much. It’s also a completely inappropriate choice if anything else in the app indicates that you’re planning a career in a field where an advanced degree is mandatory (for example, lawyer, engineer, or physician). Also, we recommend that all applicants choose “Master’s (MA, MS),” at minimum, because that suggests that the applicant’s a motivated student who will be around for a while. The obvious is still worth noting here: an MD is a doctoral degree.
The next opportunity for consistency occurs in the Common App’s “Activities” section, which directs you to report “activities [that] can help a college better understand your life outside of the classroom.” Not listing any activities says that you have no life outside of the classroom – not a good thing. What might be worse is not having activities that are consistent with your career interests or passions that you disclose in your Common App Personal Essay or additional essays. Further, you should list your activities in order of importance to you, taking full advantage of the 150-character data-entry area to “describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received.”
Next comes the Common App’s Personal Essay. Because its seventh prompt is “Share an essay on any topic of your choice…,” it’s okay if you choose any topic, as long as the essay is about YOU. Your essay doesn’t necessarily have to be consistent with anything that preceded it, but it absolutely can’t be inconsistent with anything that preceded it. For example, submitting an essay in which you describe how events that convinced you to dedicate your life to serving the underprivileged isn’t going to work very well if you’re chosen “Accountant or actuary” in the “Career interest” section.
The fact that your Personal Essay doesn’t necessarily have to be consistent with anything that preceded it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be. In fact, if it is consistent with everything that preceded it, that will help paint for admissions officers a clear picture of who they’re likely to get in the way of a student, person, and contributor to their community if you enroll. For example, if your Personal Essay evidences your concern for others and is preceded by a “Career interest” in the healthcare field, and by Activities that include volunteer work at a hospital, then you’ve been consistent in painting a clear picture of who you are and what you hope to achieve.
Some colleges, through their Questions page or Supplement may ask about your first and second choice of intended major*. It’s important that your academic record and/or extracurricular activities support that choice regardless of your selected major(s). For example, if you choose a major in business but don’t have work/internship experience, major club leadership experience that shows off your project and people management skills, or haven’t taken some business courses during your high school career, that’s probably not the best major for you to select. Another example: If you choose an education major, then some experience as a camp counselor, religious school teacher, teacher’s aide, tutor, or even babysitter will help paint the desired consistent picture of you.
The last thing that we’re going to discuss is the writing supplements required by many Common App schools, some of which ask for a response to the “Why THIS University?” prompt. An ideal response is one that includes wording that proves that you’ve done your homework by finding and including a few things (academics, extracurriculars, campus culture, etc) that are both specific and unique to that school. If they’re also consistent with your “Career interest,” one or more of your “Activities,” and/or things you revealed about yourself in the Personal Essay, then you’ve hit the jackpot.
Are you’re currently working on one of more college admission applications or are about to begin doing so? Do you want help to make sure that they’re correct, complete, and “connect the dots” for in the most effective ways? We’re really good at all this, so give us a call, and let’s get started now.
* Your choice of a major on your college application does not commit you to that major. As an enrolled student, not only can you change your major, but in most cases you don’t officially declare your major until the end of your sophomore year. Yes, there are some exceptions, like you can’t change from, say, mathematics to business or engineering without applying to change, because the latter two are more selective majors into which a finite number of students are accepted each year.