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Nov 14 2016
by Elizabeth Robinson

12 College Application Dos and Don'ts

By Elizabeth Robinson - Nov 14 2016

College applications are almost due, which means you should probably be wrapping up editing your essays, gathering letters of recommendation and preparing for interviews. Whether you're mostly done or just starting, here are a few college application tips that can apply to anyone in any stage of the application process, be it for college or anything else. 

1. DON'T bite off more than you can chew.

You think you can handle applying to every Ivy League, but you can't. The more schools you apply to, the more formulaic your methods of applying become. Your system for writing essays, contacting alumni or searching websites for academic programs all become entrenched in habit, which is the best way to miss out on vital portions of the application. Applying to too many schools gives you the temptation to reuse essays/emails, only do surface-level research of each college or opt out of "optional" essays/interviews. 

Never forget: admissions officers can sniff out apathy like bloodhounds. You're only going to end up going to one school, so you only have to apply to a couple. Being accepted into one school is your goal. Being wait-listed at four, while commendable, gets you absolutely nothing. So why would you cast a wide net when, in the end, all your eggs will end up in the same basket? Take the time to research every individual college as if it was the only college you were applying to. 

2. DO look up individual colleges' interview policies.

Every college has its own method of interviewing potential applicants, but the strangest interview policy that I encountered was the "requested interview." Some colleges won't offer you an interview; instead, you have to ask them for an interview. I had no idea this was even a thing when I was applying to college. By the time I found out that my second choice college wanted students to be the ones to take initiative in the interview process, the deadline had already passed. This is another reason not to spread yourself too thin: I was so busy juggling interviews from four other colleges that I didn't even notice that one interview was missing. You should be obsessively researching the policies of a single college, not working through a checklist for ten. 

3. DO practice interviews.

Some of your interviews are going to take place at less-than-ideal times or places. If those factors are working against you, or if you get a bad interviewer (they're volunteers, so this does happen), then you need all the advantages you can get. Being able to quickly and reliably give good answers to common interview questions is a great safeguard against your exhaustion during that one interview on the same day as your calculus test. 

Additionally, some interviewers may want to throw you a curve ball, and purposefully deviate from the script to see how you'll react. If this is the case, then it's best that you've already snagged all the normal questions under your belt. Do whatever it takes to practice. You can try ripping off the bandaid and have your parents give you a surprise-interview twice a day, or you can take baby steps: start with an interview via text, then phone, then in person. Do whatever you have to do to build these skills. 

4. DO keep your parents close at hand.

You are not yet 18, and you also don't know the small details of your family history. If you think that you can just fill out the non-essay parts of your application the night before it's due, you'll quickly run into questions like "what year did your father get his degree?" or "how many years of schooling has your mother completed?" Don't think you're off the hook if you're first generation, either. Your college apps are filled with financial aid, medical and social security information and you probably don't know last year's tax form off the top of your head. So just make sure that your parents are in the same room as you complete your application (or at least in the house). 

5. DO get people to proof read your essays.

What makes sense to you does not necessarily make sense to anyone else, so it's always good to get a second opinion. Because I spread myself so thin during applications, the essays I wrote in August glowed, and the ones I wrote in November were formulaic and apathetic. As you go through your own writing, you'll find that you start skimming, because none of what you're reading is a surprise. If you read someone else's paper, however, you can spot grammar errors like a hawk. Both you and a friend will benefit by just trading essays to proofread. You both get much more feedback for the same amount of effort. Even having someone read your essay out loud to you can provide incredible insight into what parts are boring, confusing or entertaining. Even if your test-readers never utter a single word of advice, you will gain an enormous amount of information from this interaction. 

6. DON'T let bad writers proof read your essays.

This is a modification to point number five. Some people give better advice than others. Think about it: a middle-schooler likely has no idea what colleges are looking for, and probably doesn't know as much about grammar as you do. Having a kid proof-read your college essay may sound a little over the top, but in all honesty, some high-schoolers have the same level of writing skills. Adults, writers or successful college students are likely good people to go to, whereas the anonymous peer-reviews in English class definitely won't cut it. 

7. DO spoil yourself.

Over the years, I've gotten into the habit of conserving paper by editing essays on my computer screen, forcing myself to work early in the morning so that I don't forget in the evening and denying myself background music so that I don't get distracted by contemplating anything else. College apps are not the time to do this. Make yourself as comfortable as possible. Give your mind the space and relaxation it needs to be truly creative. Write at midnight after a two-hour shower if that's what gets the creative juices flowing. Print out five drafts of an essay so that you can edit by hand. Buy yourself rewards of cake and candy if it motivates you. If you are willing to pay an $80  application fee, why wouldn't you be willing to pay for some extra ink? Right now, getting into a good college is your top priority, and you should not jeopardize that for the sake of a few bucks, your diet or a seven AM club meeting.

8. DO go on as many tours as possible.

I know it's expensive and time-consuming, but if you really had a problem with expensive and time-consuming, you wouldn't be applying to college. Touring colleges is really the only good predictor of whether or not you'll be happy there. You may not think that a college's atmosphere is a major factor in your education, but it is. I grew up in a town where it was rare to go outside and explore, but I've discovered that a huge part of the college experience is being excited to go out and experience new things: free facilities, free events, intelligent upperclassmen, field trips and more will all play a big factor in the organizations you join and the connections you form with future colleagues or recommendation-writers. Despite what you may have heard, not every moment in college will be spent locked in your room studying. 

9. DO get into contact with a current student.

College websites are unorganized, unstandardized and often just horrible sources of information. The best way to find out about programs offered by your dream college is to ask a current student. Talking to people is never my first choice as a source of information, but even now that I'm in college, I would be utterly lost without the guidance of upperclassmen. Some college websites offer contact information for their tour guides or comprehensive student directories. Alumni associations, club websites and professors are all good ways to get your foot in the door. If you'd like to speak to a student in a particular major, just ask a professor for the email of one of their TAs. They'll likely be thrilled that you came to them for advice. 

10. DO and DON'T listen to your parents.

If one or both of your parents went to college, listen to what they claim was the most important part of their college experience, but don't trust their application advice. They applied a long time ago, and things have changed. For example, my dad didn't have to take the SAT, and the ACT didn't even exist. Choosing what advice to take from your parents can be very subjective. Listen to everything your parents say, and then think hard about who is saying what to you. Even if your parents loved Greek life in college, that just might not fit your personality. Some things don't vary from person-to-person or from decade-to-decade. For example, if your parents hated classes where TAs did the teaching instead of the professors, you might find yourself preferring the professor too. 

11. DON'T get mad at your parents.

I've seen it all: a dad forcing his daughter to apply to his alma mater, a mom forcing her son to stay at home on the weekend to work on essays and (my personal favorite) interrupting a child's shower (twice) to give interview advice. Your parents are well-meaning. Maybe your email gets spammed not only by colleges, but also by your parents voicing their opinions on certain majors and programs. Maybe your every waking moment at home, including shower-time, is dominated by talk of college, college and college. But your parents mean well, even if they are trying to live through you vicariously. Do no let this time of stress get in the way of your relationship with them. In a few months, applications will be over, but you and your parents will always remember what was said and done during that time. 

12. DON'T take rejection personally.

College applications are a gamble. My friends and I thought we knew exactly who was deserving of getting into which college. But after we finally got responses from our colleges, we saw plenty of paradoxical outcomes. Some students who we admired for accomplishing so much were rejected by low-ranking colleges, while other students who spent their high school years partying got into high-ranking colleges. Even when we tried to factor in race, financial situation and family legacy, many college decisions made no sense. Things got even weirder when people applied to multiple colleges: a student rejected by a low-quality public school could still get accepted into an Ivy League. 

So, don't take it personally. The gods of Olympus are not sending you a sign that you're stupid. A lot of tired, stressed adults were trying to accept students based on their college's current demographics, needs of individual departments, stances on certain extracurriculars and subjectively-read essays. Every college and applicant varies from year to year. All you can do is try your best and make the most of what you reap in return. 

Lead Image Credit: Pexels

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Elizabeth Robinson - University of Texas at Austin

I'm a sophomore at UT Austin majoring in Dean's Biology. I've loved writing since elementary school and published my first novel in high school. I love reading, writing (obviously), foreign languages, doggos, martial arts, anthropology, theater, and watching far too much YouTube. I dream of being a fiction author and geneticist after graduate school, hopefully combining my two loves to change the world. Follow me on Twitter @MetokaPublishi1, Instagram as BlackPage13, or (best option) visit my website,!

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