The Dos and Don’ts of Your College Application

On Monday we talked about the types of applicants that colleges are looking for. Yes, they want you to be well-rounded, but it’s more than that. Colleges are looking for well-rounded students about which there is something unique. Maybe you’re the student who has great grades and test scores, but also worked for the Special Olympics (the public servant). Or perhaps you have decent grades and test scores, but you play the piano in a way that’s never been seen, or heard, before (the artist). With so many qualified students applying to college each year, something has to set you apart from the pack. Once you know your niche and have decided how you will frame your application, you can begin to make your application stand out in the best way possible. Here are some things you should (and should not) do.

A girl works on her college application after learning what not to do on college applications.

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  • Believe that you bring something to the table. You are unique and nobody else has had your experiences, so build on that and show colleges why you deserve to be there.
  • Praise yourself. This sounds so simple, but is actually really hard! While many of you want to follow Kendrick Lamar’s advice to “be humble,” the application is really your time to brag and show off everything you have to offer.
  • Write something meaningful and personal. Your personal essay is not the place to be vague or general, so don’t write about world peace (unless you really, really can make it happen). This is your chance to give colleges a window into your life and showcase your story. What do you care about? What makes you tick?
  • Make your essay vivid. Aim to write a narrative with a strong opening that will grab the reader's attention. Consider starting in the middle of the experience or opening with dialogue. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” is much more effective than “An important event in my life was when I volunteered at a homeless shelter.”
  • Show and tell. We’ve all heard the phrase, “show, don’t tell,” but on your college application, you should “show, then tell.” Use your words to create an image in the reader’s mind, but also don’t assume they will connect all the dots. If, while describing your desk, you mention the five photos you keep on display, be sure to go back and explain how each impacts your life. If you paint a picture of the gold medal hanging off the drawer handle, use that as a springboard to explain your achievements in swimming.
  • Edit and proofread! The last things you want when you submit an application essay are grammatical and spelling errors. Not only should you read and re-read your writing, you should ask a minimum of two trustworthy people (think: teacher, parent, grammar-expert friend) to read over it. Beware, it is dishonest and unethical for anyone to re-write part or all of your essay, so be sure that your editors are simply providing feedback. It should also go without saying that plagiarism of any kind is unacceptable.
  • Address your hopes and dreams. This may sound silly, but in doing this you not only show colleges that you make short- and long-term goals, you also show how you will fit in and what you will bring to campus.
  • Have recommendation letters. A good recommendation letter can really set you apart, but it needs to be written by the person at your school who knows you best. Letters from teachers or leaders with whom you have worked closely mean much more than a letter from a distant family friend who attended the college to which you’re applying. Pay close attention to the application requirements; you may be required to submit recommendations from specific people (e.g., a coach, STEM teacher, or band director).
  • Give specific reasons that you want to attend the school. Do some research about the college(s) to which you are applying. Do they have the major you’re interested in? Are there clubs being offered that are similar to your high school extracurriculars? By doing specific research, you can tailor your application to show what you can offer to the college if you’re accepted.
  • Visit the school (if possible). Colleges track things like this, so if you are able to make time for a school visit, you should! If you can’t, try reaching out to the admissions office and ask to be put in touch with current students. Any effort that you make will be noted in your file, and it’s great to have real contacts at a school whom you can ask questions or for advice.
  • Manage your online presence. Believe it or not, colleges (and employers) do Google students and check their social media accounts to get a better picture of their character. Make sure your online presence is illustrating you in a positive light. While you don’t have to go over the top posting photos of you doing community service (especially if it’s not something you’re invested in), it is wise to make sure that you delete or untag photos and statuses that pertain to illicit activity.
  • Include supplemental materials. If a college accepts them, include them! Supplemental materials include audio recordings, videos, research papers, art samples, etc. The key to supplemental materials is that they should enhance your application. Only include items that could not be adequately portrayed in the rest of your application. It’s probably unwise to share your karaoke YouTube videos unless you’re an aficionado.
  • Opt for the “optional essay.” Some colleges offer an optional essay. If this is the case with your prospective school, do it! Making the effort to write an additional essay shows not only that you are committed to the school, but that you take the application seriously and are willing to put in the extra time to set yourself apart from the rest of the applicants.


  • Try to be everything. Doing this can actually have an adverse effect on your chances of being admitted. If you have spread yourself thinly between too many activities, you’ll come across as flaky and unable to commit. These are not the traits that colleges are looking for in their students.
  • Pretend to be someone you’re not. It should go without saying that you should never lie on your application. Beyond that, you should not make yourself out to be something you really aren’t. If you ran a few rehearsals for the drama club, don’t paint the picture that you’re an amazing leader. There is plenty that makes you unique—focus on that!
  • Seriously, don't.

    Veep / Giphy

    Pad your application. Avoid including menial events just to make your application look better. If you donated to charity one time, leave that out! It makes you look desperate to find things to include and admissions officers are going to notice. It’s better to be honest about the few activities in which you do participate than to imply you do more.
  • Send pictures (if not requested). Exceptions to this are the few applications that require a headshot (if you are applying to a theater program, for example).
  • Focus on a “unique application.” Avoid the pink, scented applications. Instead, make sure you have an application that shows how you’re unique.
  • Send gifts. It’s true that gifts of any sort are going to set you apart from the crowd, just not in the way you want. Bribing the admissions office is never a good idea.

Remember, colleges are ultimately looking for intelligent and unique applicants that can and will contribute something to the school. Your application is your chance to highlight all the ways you are special, so make sure you take it seriously and put in the extra effort! Good luck!

About Shannon Whitney

Shannon loves traveling, watching Friends, and all things Florida Gators. While she grew up in Northern Virginia, she left the state to attend the University of Florida in 2001. After earning a master’s degree in education, she returned home and has worked as an elementary school teacher for the past 11 years. Shannon recently decided it was time to put teaching on hold and venture down a new professional path. During her free time, Shannon is either traveling, cheering for Florida, binge-watching a Netflix series, or preparing to be an aunt!

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