NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Thanks to the Internet and perhaps even the common application, which is accepted at hundreds of educational institutions nationwide, applying to college has gotten easier for students. But actually getting accepted to a school is much harder these days.
"You've got more kids applying to more schools, thinking this will improve their odds," says Steve Cohen, co-author of the book
Getting In! The Zinch Guide to College Admissions and Financial Aid in the Digital Age
. "But most kids hurt their chances of getting in without even realizing it."
Applying to college has gotten easier for students, but actually getting accepted is much harder these days -- meaning a lot rides on a college application.
To help students improve their chances of being accepted to their first-choice schools, we asked experts to outline what others have done wrong in the past. Here's what you can learn from their mistakes.
Treating every application the same
While more and more colleges and universities are allowing students to submit the common application, most still require students to submit supplemental information or answer additional essay questions as well. Other schools still prefer to use their own application.
Whatever the case, students should tackle each application or supplement separately, since answers that might get them into Brown University might not net them acceptance into Harvard (or vice versa). Also, similarly to how a
cover letter should be tailored to the company you are looking to work for
, students shouldn't recycle essays or answers to other application questions that don't illustrate why they are a good fit at that particular college.
"You're always going to have a better shot of getting into a school if you make a personal connection with the admissions office," says Craig Meister, former admissions officer and president of Tactical College Consulting. "The people who want to do the least end up with least acceptance letters."
Forgetting to proofread your essay
Maybe it's because they're so focused on coming up for a good answer to the question or because they're so overloaded with work senior year, but many students submit their college essays without proofreading them.
According to Jennifer Louden, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Loyola University in Maryland, while punctuation and spelling mistakes abound, it's even more common for an essay to arrive completely devoid of capital letters.
Students write it as if they were sending a text message," she says. It's important to give your essay a good combing over before sending it out to the admissions office.
Fast-forwarding through the directions
Another telltale sign that your application was more or less a rush job is to not answer a question the way a college is requesting it be answered.
For instance, Meister cites a question on the common application that asks students to list their current course load by formal title and credit value. If the student only lists the course title or simply describes it by its generic name, they are illustrating that they aren't detailed-oriented or that they don't care enough to read through the entire application before submitting it.
"Colleges are looking for reasons not to accept you," Meister says, and incomplete or faulty responses could easily be one of them.
Overloading an application with extracurricular activities
Contrary to what you may have been told, a laundry list of extracurricular activities is not the key to an admissions officer's heart.
"Good colleges are not looking for well-rounded kids," Cohen says. "They are looking for a well-rounded class." He says it is more important for a student to show "passion" for one specific thing, such as playing the violin or running student government, than to have marginally participated in every club or extracurricular activity available at their high school or within their local community.
Padding your file
Similarly, you shouldn't waste your time trying to get a congressman who is a friend of a friend of your mother's distant cousin to write you a recommendation.
"The unofficial saying is 'The thicker the file, the thicker the kid,'" Cohen says. He adds that what you choose to include with your application should come from a place of authenticity, speak to who you are as a person and outline what you would bring to an institution's student body.
"Don't pad the folder," Cohen says.
Friending a college admissions adviser on Facebook
While it is important to make a personal connection with an admissions officer, you may want to stop short of friending this person on Facebook, says Colin Gruenwald, faculty manager of Kaplan Test Prep's SAT, ACT and PSAT programs.
Cohen also advises prospective college students to "scrub" their Facebook pages and clean up their digital footprint, as admissions officers are increasingly turning to social media networks to recruit potential students and using Google searching to vet applicants.
Visiting a school when it's not in session
While it's certainly important that a school like you, it's also important that you like them, and one of the ways to ensure you're applying to colleges you will actually enjoy attending is by visiting its campus. High school students should refrain from stopping by when classes aren't in session, though, Gruenwald says.
"It's very convenient for families to visit
on holidays or weekends, but it's not going to offer you an authentic view of campus life," Gruenwald says. He advises students to talk to their parents about arranging a visit on a school day.
Waiting too long to think about financial aid
Your ability to pay a tuition bill will ultimately weigh heavily on whether you get to attend your college of choice, so don't want until you can fill out your FAFSA in January of senior year to find financing.
Instead, Gruenwald says, parents and students should start thinking about how much they can afford to spend on higher education as early as the 9th grade. They should also look into what types of scholarships are being offered by their employers, private organizations and local community groups in their area, as these can serve as alternate sources of financing.
What colleges and universities have a proven track record when it comes to providing applicants with funding for their education? Find out in this roundup of the best colleges for financial aid.
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