The Six Most Common Mistakes on a School Application

Errors that immediately disqualify you from the game

Year after year, applicants fall into the same traps. The true winners are those who are capable of absorbing feedback and adjusting their application. Here are some common mistakes that we’ve spotted throughout the years:

1. Writing about a laundry list of achievements in your essay

By far, this is the #1 mistake that applicants make. It’s human nature to be proud of your achievements. So when you’re applying to a top school, it only makes sense to tell the admissions committee about everything that you’ve accomplished so far, right? Absolutely not.

A laundry list is just that: a pile of messy laundry with no coherent theme. Limiting your examples to pivotal experiences that shaped who you are requires focus and objectivity. Chronologically listing everything great that you have done tells the reader that you can’t prioritize, you might be a bit full of yourself, and you can’t answer the questions properly. Your resume can be your bragging space, but not the essay.

2. Not answering the essay question

Schools are screening for a specific fit. Every question in their application is intentionally designed to filter out those who don’t fit. Applicants sometimes have an agenda in mind. They are so attached to one particular line of thought that they MUST convey it to the board of admissions. Therefore, they end up hijacking the valuable space with what they want to tell. This puts an immediate end to your chances of moving on in the application process. Here is what admissions will read: inability to follow instructions, too proud to accept change, too emotional to let go.

Have a friend or family member to read your essay and then ask the person“what do you think my essay is responding to?” If the question he or she comes up with matches the question that the school asked for, you’re on the right track.

3. Choosing references based on title rather than professional relationship

Schools don’t just take your word for what you say about yourself. They ask for validation from other people. Applicants often think that including a letter from a prestigious professional or someone with a high-level title will somehow be more credible. That’s a myth. The best letters come from people who have closely worked with you and have seen you grow professionally.

The questions for the references are so specific about the candidate that your reference must know you very well. The CEO of a company might write a generic letter with a lot of positive adjectives. But a recently promoted manager who worked closely with you during a summer internship might point to specific examples of your interaction and demonstrate the depth of your potential. Choose wisely.

4. Not admitting failures

Some applicants are overachievers who try to hide their flaws. They’ll point to some superficial weakness, masking the areas where they truly need to develop. Admissions actually prefer self-aware individuals who can admit their mistakes and demonstrate their ability to overcome them. When it comes to failure stories, it’s important to admit the failure, show how you’ve reflected and learned from the failure, and demonstrate the steps that you’ve taken to improve.

5. Being too emotional about a story

Personal stories are good to the extent that they demonstrate the character and the potential of the applicant. However, crafting the story with the right balance of tone, details, and perspective is equally important. Moving from one continent to another probably caused culture shock. But going to the depth of describing how the move affected your relationship with your girlfriend is a bit too much information. Applicants often can’t let go of their stories. They get mired in specific details that were important to them emotionally but have no bearing on their application. Even after hiring a professional, they are unwilling to relinquish control until many revisions later. Ask yourself: “does this detail tell anything about my character and my potential?”

6. Not addressing the gaps

Some applicants don’t have stellar records. They might score low on the SAT/GRE/GMAT or have a below-average GPA. Others might lack extracurricular activities. But throughout the application, they don’t explicitly address these gaps. They simply focus on their personal story, pretending that nothing is wrong. There is an inherent fear that if you address a gap you are unnecessarily calling attention to it. But admissions officers will notice even if you don’t call out your gaps. There are many pieces to an application: short answers, your resume and work history, recommendation letters, and essays. Use them all to tell one story and don’t leave gaps up to anyone’s imagination.

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