One thing that you absolutely DO NOT want to do is confuse college admissions officers by presenting contradictory – or inconsistent – information about yourself in your college applications. And there are multiple opportunities to do exactly that – through omission and commission.
Conversely – and fortunately – those multiple opportunities to screw up are the very opportunities you must carefully take to present a consistent, personal picture. Such a personal presentation helps admissions officers decide a critically important question: What’s our college likely to get in the way of a student, person, and community contributor if we admit this applicant?
Because the Common Application is by far the most widely used application, we’re going to focus on several spots (but not all) where you can present a consistent picture of yourself — or shoot yourself in the foot. Here's our top 7 tips:
Tip #1: Be Consistent with the Current Courses You Choose to Present
The first is 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 expression of deep interest in STEM majors or anything medical. Be sure to list your most important core academic courses first.
Tip #2: Be Consistent with Your Career Interests
The next opportunity comes in the Future Plans section where you indicate your “Career interest.” It’s tempting to select “Undecided,” the most popular choice among applicants. Go ahead and pick that one if you’re truly undecided. However, if you have any inkling of what your future career is likely to entail, pick something more specific, something that is supported by your academic record and/or extracurricular activities. Your application will look inconsistent – or, maybe worse, sloppy or lacking in thoroughness – if you choose “Undecided” and follow that elsewhere (in your essay, for example) with an indication that you want to become an entrepreneur! We’re not done with the Future Plans section.
Tip #3: Document Your Goals to Continue Your Education Beyond a Bachelor's Degree
Another question asks you to choose the “Highest degree you intend to earn.” Selecting “Bachelor’s (BA, BS)” says little more than that you’re not planning to drop out before earning a four-year degree; that’s not saying much. It’s also a completely inappropriate choice if anything else in your application indicates that you’re planning a career that requires an advanced degree (for example, lawyer, therapist, architect, or physician). Further, we strongly recommend that all applicants choose “Master’s (MA, MS)” at minimum, because that suggests that you’re a motivated student with future academic plans.
Tip #4: List Your Activities in Order of Importance to You and Your Career Interests
The next opportunity for consistency occurs in the Common App’s “Activities” section, where you 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. Worse is not having at least one activity that isn’t consistent with your career interests or passions that you disclose in your Personal Essay or supplemental 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.” And note that the latter really refers to describing your role within the activity, not the activity itself.
Tip #5: Align Your Personal Essay with Other Aspects of Your Application
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’ve 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 as a student, person, and community contributor if you enroll. For example, if your Personal Essay conveys your concern for others and is preceded by a “Career interest” in the healthcare field, and follows an Activities entry that include your 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.
Tip #6: Your Academic Record and Extracurricular Activities Should Support Your Chosen Major
Some colleges, through their Questions page or Supplement questions may ask about your first and second choice of intended major*. It’s important that your academic record and/or extracurricular activities support your choice regardless of your selected major. 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 your desired, consistent portrait.
Tip #7: Showcase Your Desire to Attend the University with Examples that Align with Your Career Interests
The last thing we’ll discuss are the writing supplements required by many Common App schools. Some of these 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 details about academics, extracurriculars, campus culture, etc. that are both specific and unique to that school. To ensure hitting the jackpot, make sure that some of what you include is consistent with your “Career interest,” one or more of your “Activities,” and/or things you revealed about yourself in the Personal Essay. Nothing is worse than simply answering this revealing question with words that paraphrase the school’s web page.
Are you currently working on your college applications or about to begin them? Do you want help to ensure that they’re correct, complete, and “connect the dots” in the most effective ways? We’re really good at this – with 95% of our counseling students gaining admission to one of their top-choice colleges – 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 it until the end of your sophomore year. Yes, there are some exceptions: For example, you can’t change from mathematics to business or engineering without applying to change, because the latter two are more selective majors limited by a school to a finite number of newly accepted students each year.