How to Not Mess Up Your College Application, According to Admissions Officers

Last year, I had numerous friends in the graduating class, and I would grill them to the point of exhaustion about what they were experiencing as they went through the college application process. I do not personally know many seniors this year, but as a junior and a perfectionist, I still have numerous lingering questions about what it takes to be accepted by the most important school on your college list. And with a lot of early decision and early action deadlines less than a month away, a lot of seniors at our wonderful institution probably still need to know how to optimize their applications as well. So I decided to speak to some college admissions staff members who happened to be in the area about what students should do to optimize their chances of getting in. Here’s what they had to offer.


Use what you’re given. “We have a lot of resources to help students and I don’t think they use them enough,” said Jayne Reimel, an admissions counselor working for the University of California Santa Barbara. Lots of college websites have comprehensive course catalogs for students who have no idea what they want to do, as well as separate links to pages dedicated to specific types of applicants, such as international students. Before investing time and mental energy into a school, make sure you know what you’ve signed up for first. Being too informed is almost never a bad thing!


I hate being late. In admissions, the early applicant gets the proverbial worm. “My recommendation is always apply early,” said Rosa Ciunci of the University of Rhode Island. Also, for students who might have no idea where they want to go, and therefore don’t know where they might apply early to, she advised, “Visit a lot of campuses and see what it’s like to be there.” That way, you’ll know how you fit into the community and you’ll be confident about the decision to make an early commitment to one, or several, institutions.


Another commonly echoed tidbit of advice among the admissions staff I spoke to: do not rush, especially on the essay. “Give yourself a lot of time to complete your application,” advised Karen Schrum, who works in admissions at the University of Chicago. As an applicant, you definitely should not leave your application to the last minute, especially if you’re applying to a more selective school whose application process is more involved. The University of Chicago is also particularly notorious for its very creativity-requiring supplemental-essay prompts, such as: “Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used.” So as a prospective applicant, you would need to carve out time to invent a word, or whatever it is the application requires of you. “Write it from the heart,” Villanova University’s Dr. John Zawora, an alumni recruiter, said of the admissions essay. After all, writing reflects personality, and writing something from the heart will require time for careful reflection and consideration before you show admissions staff who you are.


Finally, follow the directions. Ange Huffman, an admissions counselor at Purdue University in Indiana, candidly described how she wanted to showcase her creativity, so instead of writing an essay as required on the University of Notre Dame’s application, she submitted a poem instead. “I didn’t get in,” she revealed with a smile. So when completing an application, “be creative, but don’t go rogue.” If you do as instructed and respect the application requirements, admissions staff will be less likely to have a reason to throw out your application.


After all this, it appears there is no perfect formula for getting into college. I originally set out to write this article about mistakes I and current seniors nationwide could avoid making, but in reality, admissions officers just want to see that you are trying, and putting your best authentic self forward so they can accept the excellent human student that you are. And if you don’t get in? Use it as a learning opportunity, as Purdue’s Huffman did. Remember that admissions officers used to be college applicants themselves, too.


On that note, I wish all current college-bound Robinson seniors the best of luck. Conquer those college applications, and in the meantime, I’ll be on the hunt for ideas for my own application essay. Because it’s never too early to start preparing.