There is no one way to get accepted into a specific school, just as there is no one explanation for why an application is turned down. Typically, a number of variables come into play, not all of which the candidate can influence.
Planning ahead, taking your time, and being careful with the information you provide to the admissions committee will help you avoid many of the frequent mistakes that applicants make. If you’re not careful, these errors or “red flags” could send your application to the “no” pile. The good news is that you may easily avoid these errors, giving your application a greater shot in the cutthroat world of competitive college admissions.
Here are several regular errors that can be easily avoided, as seen by a former MIT admissions officer:
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Yes, it is accurate to say that the admissions process revolves around context. Successful applicants who have had many possibilities for both intellectual and personal growth and discovery are judged differently than those from low socioeconomic backgrounds or whose parents did not attend college. The applicant who must work 25 hours per week to help support the family or who spends several hours each weekday babysitting younger siblings just won’t have the extracurricular profile of her peers.
However, context is considerably more complex than just socioeconomic factors. You might have a learning disability or physical impairment, a parent who struggles with addiction and causes havoc in your nuclear family, parents who follow a particular religion that shields you from popular culture, or you might belong to an ethnic or cultural minority in your community or among the applicant pool for the college you’re applying to.
Consider your situation and attempt to see it objectively. How would you describe your neighborhood? How would you describe your household? What obligations do you have to your family? Then, inform colleges. Allow the admissions committee to have the most complete and vivid picture of you in your setting. Applicants that omit this crucial personal background information frequently suffer in the admissions process.
You can wind yourself receiving a lot of rejection letters if the world revolves around you. Pay attention to how often you utilize “I” in your essays. Do you acknowledge the guidance you had from mentors, supervisors, instructors, and other people along the way, or did you do everything on your own? Have you given any thought to what you can do to improve the world, or are you merely interested in what people (and colleges) can provide for you?
Be cautious while writing about your high school peers, instructors, and administrators. You might be 100 percent right that they are unmotivating, dim-witted, and uninterested, but you will be 100 percent mistaken to assume that the personnel at highly selected universities will share your arrogant viewpoint. It’s acceptable to criticize your high school, but always have a sense of decorum and avoid placing the blame for your personal failings on the institution.
For example at MIT, common reason an application would swiftly put an MIT application in the “no” pile for an applicant is if they claimed they wanted to attend MIT in order to graduate with a decent career. Not everyone grows up to be an astronaut, a Nobel Prize-winning author, or the President of the United States, but if you don’t allow yourself to dream big and envision what you could accomplish if you realized your full potential, you won’t get there, or anywhere close.
For children who are the first in their family to even complete high school, attending a prestigious university and landing a well-paying, white-collar job IS ambitious. Of course, colleges analyze applications contextually. Readers are aware of this and have modified their thinking. However, it’s simpler to admit someone who has a compelling future vision and persuades the reader that he will achieve great things with his education.
The majority of colleges standardize their candidate pool by using some kind of admissions criteria. Some institutions incorporate applicants’ apparent level of interest in their programs—also known as demonstrated interest—into their scoring systems. Every school wants to accept applicants who genuinely know and enjoy the institution and who might enroll if accepted.
The essay you write in response to the school’s version of “Why X school?” is a crucial indicator of your level of interest. The academic programs and extracurricular activities that interest you in the school as well as how you would contribute to the school community should be extensively discussed in your essay. If you haven’t done enough research on the school, your essay will be uninteresting and maybe even seem fake.
Essays are not meant to be confessional, just your application. We all have a dark side; we all have character defects and emotional baggage that comes from simply existing in an imperfect world. The application is a chance to showcase your best self and other sides. Be very cautious when discussing your neuroses, phobias, failures, and regrets if they aren’t clearly offset by highlighting the advantages of these experiences and proving that you have made it to the other side of the dark tunnel.
Avoid TMI as well, which is excessively extra information that doesn’t improve the program. Sending nine letters of recommendation, copies of every academic certificate ever obtained, and a ton of local newspaper clippings is not necessary. Application readers typically have a ton of material to read in a condensed amount of time. Be attentive and deliberate while submitting any additional materials to avoid annoying them.
If you still believe that getting into the most prestigious institutions in the US requires excellent grades and SAT scores, you need to think again. One of the most crucial factors that distinguishes applicants who are only qualified from those who are desirable is what you do outside of the formal classroom—your extracurricular activities. So please don’t fill out your activities list in a lazy manner.
Don’t forget to inform the school your position in each activity, especially if you were a leader, and to include the year(s) of participation, the amount of hours per week, and the number of weeks each year. Additionally, give a justification for any confusing acts. Don’t omit anything that is significant to you because you believe the admissions committee is uninterested in your passion for sewing, for instance. Additionally, you must complete the activities list before submitting a resume.
While balancing a busy schedule, it can be challenging to apply to ten colleges. It may be tempting to attempt to use that one outstanding essay you worked so hard on to address the essay questions for all 10 supplements, but tread carefully. If it is evident to the reader that you have repurposed an essay for another school to sort of, somewhat meet their prompt, you may receive a low score on the demonstrated interest test. Readers often have experience with the prompts from similar organizations, so they might not appreciate your efforts.
Avoid using expensive terms in your essays when ten-cent ones will serve just fine. Don’t dumb yourself down if you have a broad vocabulary, by all means. However, using big words carelessly or excessively won’t impress anyone and could even put the reader off of you. Your essays will sound more genuine if you write what comes naturally to you.
Readers will anticipate that if you were raised in a setting where English is the primary language, you have a solid knowledge of correct grammar and punctuation. Poor language and punctuation will bring you to the rejection pile fast, and by soon I mean immediately. You don’t want to give the reader ANY grounds to place your application in the reject pile. Try to have a native English speaker proofread your application if English is your second language to catch any obvious grammatical, word choice, and punctuation mistakes. No one will be expecting flawless prose from you, but go the extra mile and have your grammar checked.
Last but not least, double-check your work after using spell-check and other word processor features. Have a second set of eyes look through your application. After all, admissions officers are only human. When you fail to substitute “Harvard” with “MIT” in your essay, they can’t help but be put off by your MIT application. Although it won’t immediately reject you, it is one of those sneaky things. Avoid going there!
When submitting a college application, there are many factors to take into account. The content and substance of your application are just as important as where you submit it. You’ll be in the best possible position to get accepted to the college of your choice if you stay away from these typical blunders!