Avoid the Top 5 College Application Mistakes

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Talk about long odds: 2011 admissions stats at Harvard suggest only 6 percent of applicants are getting in this year. Stanford is at 7 percent, and Yale is only slightly higher. (You can check out other top schools’ stats at that link too.)

It’s depressing for high-school grads when they realize nearly all universities admit only a fraction of applicants, but it’s also a wake-up call. Because high-school seniors can radically improve the odds of getting into the college of their choice by starting at the beginning: their application.

Stacy recently talked to Pam Proctor, consultant with Aristotle Circle, college admissions expert and author of The College Hook: Packaging Yourself to Win the College Admissions Game. Check out the video below to see what she says are the biggest application mistakes and how to avoid them.

As Proctor says, “Students need to be aggressive about getting help in every area.” Here’s more detail about the top application mistakes and how to avoid them.

1. Not having a hook. If you’re a journalism student, you know what’s meant by the term “hook.” The dictionary defines it as “a means of attracting interest or attention; an enticement.” In an article, it’s the headline. In an application to college, Proctor says applicants need to “find that one thing that’s going to leap off the page and set you apart.” So, what’s your passion? In the video above, Proctor mentioned a student who stood out for his devotion to hiking, but each of us has interests that make us different, and interesting. Connect with what’s special about you. If you don’t know what it is, your friends probably do, so ask them.

Keep in mind that while your hook ideally is something that will appeal to a college admissions officer, this isn’t about buttering someone up with flowery prose. The purpose of a hook is to present yourself as what you are: a unique individual. Remember the movie “Risky Business”? While it’s probably not advisable to run a brothel in your parents’ house while they’re away, Tom Cruise’s character did something important. He made himself stand out from the crowd.

2. Ignoring your online identity. Facebook used to be just for kids who were already in college, but these days, everyone uses it – including the admissions department at your schools of choice. Proctor says, “82 percent of admissions officers have used Facebook in evaluating candidates.” So get rid of any photos, messages, pages, or “Likes” that may reflect badly on you. Her advice in a nutshell? “If you wouldn’t want your mom to see it, remove it.” Instead, she says, “Use Facebook to promote your hook.” Highlight what you’re good at and what you want to do with your life in the future.

3. Not getting help early and often. Guidance counselors aren’t there just to help you pick your class schedule – they keep up to date on admissions trends and understand how the process works. Make friends with your high-school counselor as soon as you can, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Proctor says, “You can’t underestimate the importance of this process, and do not wait until the last minute.” Counselors can help you pick classes you will be challenged in but still excel at, and recommend tutors and prep resources for important admissions tests like the PSAT, SAT, and ACT. They may also know what kind of applicants specific colleges are looking for, and who has the best programs for your career interests. But they can’t help you if you wait until graduation to introduce yourself. This applies to teachers too. The better they know you, the more impressive their letters of recommendation will be.

4. Plan ahead. It’s important to start thinking about college early in high school, even if you have no idea what you want to do, where you want to go, or if you can afford it. (We’ll talk about financial aid on Friday.) Those decisions can wait, but getting good grades, scoring high on achievement tests, and making a name for yourself can’t. Proctor says, “If you have the top 3 – the grades, the scores, and the hook – that’s going to set you up for merit aid” and easier admission, even at the top schools.

5. Don’t rely on your parents. Your parents may have some good advice, and they will definitely want to help you. But make sure you take charge of your own future, starting with your admissions essay. Proctor says, “Over-involvement by parents in the application process, particularly in brainstorming on essays and editing essays, can be deadly for your applications.” You want an essay that sounds like you – not them. If you need input or editing, ask another relative or favorite teacher.

Finally, aim high, but don’t be afraid to apply to local and lesser-known schools and even community colleges. If you’re not an A+ student in high school, you may be able to prove yourself as a college freshman and transfer somewhere better. And make sure to prepare for the PSAT you take as a junior. It’s not just a practice test, and can lead to a free ride at your favorite school, as we’ll explain on Friday.

Oh, and when you get that acceptance letter? Check out 4 Places to Get Free Textbooks.

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