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The Dos and Don'ts of College Applications

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- The beginning of a new school year brings mixed emotions for every student. But for high school seniors, this fall is especially nerve-racking, as it heralds the beginning of college admissions season.

That's going to mean a lot of freaking out among students seeking admission to top-tier schools, who are understandably worried about grades, extracurricular activities, recommendations from teachers and the impending interviews.

But it's possible to psych yourself out during this process, and not every aspect of it will make or break your application. Here are some things that graduating seniors shouldn't panic about ... and a few that they should.

Worry About Extracurriculars

There's no doubt that extracurricular activities are an important part of the application process. But there's a right way and a wrong way to cover your bases here. As a general rule, it's better to show a big commitment to one or two activities than to try and be a jack-of-all-trades.

"[Not having enough extracurriculars] is rarely the problem," says Bev Taylor, founder of college counseling service the Ivy Coach. "The mistake is not shining in a specific extracurricular. Too many applicants are all over the place and unfocused."

While senior year is probably too late to suddenly rise through the ranks of a student group and become president, you should still take the same focused approach at this point in the game.

"It's never too late," advises Chuck Hughes, a former Harvard admissions officer and president of admissions consulting firm Road to College. "Instead of being in five clubs and doing an hour a week, pick one and make a difference for 12 weeks. Have 12 weeks of legitimate involvement."

...But Don't Worry If You Chose Work

There is one big exception to the importance of doing extracurriculars: Students who instead chose to hold down part-time jobs.

"Colleges are not going to penalize a student who needs to work to support their family or pay for college -- they just want to see that students are busy," says Christiana Quinn, founder of college counseling company College Admission Advisors. "If that's what a student is engaged in, then that's what they should write about [on the application] instead of an extracurricular, and they should say what the money goes toward."
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