Getting In: What the Experts Say

With contributors Gael Casner, Heath Einstein, Michele Hernandez, Wendy Kahn, and Carolyn P. Mulligan

What are the top three mistakes students make when applying to college, and what should they do differently to increase their odds of getting in?

Gael Casner, College Find, Greenbrae, CA (UC Berkeley Certificate in College Admissions and Career Planning, creator of "College Find Newsletter," HECA* president 2013-14, NACAC, WACAC):

  • Mistake #1: Not balancing your application list. Make sure to apply to a few "reach schools," meaning very competitive schools where many capable students are denied admission; a handful of "target schools," where your GPA and test scores fall within the mid 50% of applicants; and at least two "anchor schools," where your academic profile places you within the top 25% of applicants. To calculate your admissions chances at each school of interest, go to, then click on College Chances.
  • Mistake #2: Not setting aside enough time for the college application process. It's overwhelming to deal with 10 or 12 applications at once; instead, set aside time every week through the fall to complete them.
  • Mistake #3: Not printing/previewing your application before pushing "submit." One student I know submitted her application without pushing the save button on significant final corrections, and didn't learn about the mistake until it was too late. Another student mistakenly uploaded an older version of her essay with corrections and comments from me in red, then sent it out to five early action colleges—another consequential error. If you build in time to complete your applications before the deadline, you'll be able to conduct a final, careful review of your work.

Heath Einstein (Director of Freshman Admission, Texas Christian University; Former Director of College Counseling, Solomon Schechter School of Westchester):

  • Mistake #1: Applying to the wrong colleges. Dismissing all but the Ivy League schools or those ranked in the top tier according to US News & World Report is terribly misguided, because what someone else deems important about a school can be wholly unimportant to you. For example, if you want to major in architectural engineering, good choices are schools with majors in that discipline, such as the University of Miami and the University of Kansas.
  • Mistake #2: Applying to too many colleges. Today, it has become normal for students to apply to a dozen or more schools. Doing so enables colleges to boast to their Boards of Trustees about record numbers of applicants—but it harms individual students. As applications increase, admission offices have greater difficulty predicting who will actually accept their offers, and therefore increasingly gauge students' interest when making admission decisions. Many colleges ask students to list all of the schools to which they are applying. Students who are otherwise worthy of admission are often placed on waitlists because colleges are reluctant to offer precious spots to those who appear to have unclear intentions. You would be wise to carefully choose the four or five schools that suit you best and at which you have a strong chance of admission.
  • Mistake #3: Being a stealth applicant, whose first point of contact with a college is your application. You have not visited campus (officially), met with the admissions representative during a high school visit, interacted with the alumnus at the local college fair, or anything else that would indicate to an admissions office that you are seriously interested in the school. Even if you learned about the college by taking a virtual online tour, the school will still regard you as having demonstrated little interest—with undesired ramifications. At many schools, if a college receives applications from two students at the same high school with similar credentials except one has "demonstrated interest" and the other is a "stealth student," the first student is considerably more likely to receive an offer of admission. Most colleges recruit regionally, meaning there is one staff member responsible for all applicants from your high school. Find out who that person is and send him/her an email indicating your interest. At many colleges, this, along with other forms of contact, will be placed into your file. Updates every couple of months will keep you on the representative's radar.

Wendy Kahn, Wendy Kahn College Consulting, LLC, Highland Park, IL (UCLA College Consulting Certificate, HECA*, IECA Associate Member):

  • Mistake #1: Failing to consider your personal learning style when deciding between schools. Do you want opportunities for class discussion, smaller classes, and ongoing interaction with professors? Do you think you'll get better grades in smaller classes? If so, a small school may be the best fit for you. Do you want the greatest possible range and variety in course offerings? Do you prefer to soak up knowledge in lecture classes? Are you considering a specialized major that may not be available at a small school? If so, a larger school may be the right choice for you.
  • Mistake #2: Focusing on superficialities in building a college list. According to a new report, colleges attract more applicants by spending money on "consumption amenities" such as luxury dorms and state-of-the-art climbing walls than they do by investing in academics. Similarly, colleges always see a surge in applications after they win national sports championships, and every year some students choose their school because it's in a warm climate. But remember: You're going to be a student Monday through Friday. Academic quality/fit is the goal, not weather, athletics, or amenities.

Dr. Michele Hernandez, President, Hernandez College Consulting, LLC, Weybridge, VT; Co-President, Application Boot Camp, LLC:

  • Mistake #1: Applying based on the "hope and a prayer" theory of admissions. At your high school, review the Naviance software scattergrams, which show all college applicants from the last few years graphed by SAT score and GPA, to see how you stack up against students at your high school. Also study the GPAs, scores, awards, and achievements of accepted students. At top colleges, grades, test scores, and academic achievements/awards trump all else. If you have a B average and 600 level scores, even if you are a champion chess player, you will not get into Harvard.
  • Mistake #2: Waiting until the last minute to request recommendations. Ask your teachers for recommendation letters at the end of junior year or the very beginning of senior year. Popular teachers get dozens of requests, so by deadline time their letters often become hurried and impersonal—the antithesis of what you need to stand out.
  • Mistake #3: Failing to pay for and send test scores from the College Board website. Some colleges won't consider applications unless they receive official SAT, Subject Test, ACT, and AP score reports from the testing agencies, and your school will not send your scores. Sign into your account and send the scores five weeks ahead of the application deadline.

Carolyn P. Mulligan, Insiders Network to College, Summit, NJ; Board of Counselor CATS for the University of Arizona (IECA*, NACAC, NJACAC, HECA):

  • Mistake #1: Applying to the most popular colleges and universities. About 80% of qualified students apply to 20% of the schools. If you look beyond the "usual suspects" and apply to great schools in other states and regions, it may turn out that a couple of those schools are looking for a student from your area to complete their demographic objectives—and that precious acceptance letter might soon be on its way to you.
  • Mistake #2: Trying to fit yourself into a college or university in which you really don't belong. I call this "the Cinderella syndrome." Don't be like the stepsisters who tried to fit into someone else's shoe. You need to fit the college, and the college needs to fit you.

What hard lessons have Jewish students encountered on campus and how can they be avoided?

Wendy Kahn: One of my students was unhappy at her highly selective, small liberal arts college. She'd chosen this school in part because of its relatively high Jewish population, but on campus she realized that although the "bodies" were there, the community and programming she expected were not. Worse, the broader campus culture did not suit her - too preppy, too party; she felt like a fish out of water. She transferred to a mid-sized university with a more vibrant Hillel and a campus culture that fit her. She was happy and successful there.

So, when evaluating Jewish life at a college, look beyond the demographics and investigate what's going on that matters to you. Would you like an active Israel advocacy group? Reform services every Friday night? An Israeli dance group? Don't rely solely on the college website for answers; talk to Hillel staff and student leaders about Jewish life on campus. (Also see "What Makes a Campus Jewishly Vibrant.")

In addition, make sure you're comfortable with the broader campus culture. Every college has its own "flavor." At some schools, weekends are filled with fraternity parties and football; at others, the big weekend events may be a poetry slam and an ultimate frisbee tournament. Talk to students, especially Hillel students, who'll be candid with you about students' raves and complaints, the glue that binds campus life, and what it feels like to be a Jewish student there.

How can students best narrow down their list of schools?

Gael Casner: Apply these questions to all the schools on your list:

  1. What two courses do you really want to take at this college? Research the professors giving the courses.
  2. What event on the school's social calendar would you want to attend if you were on campus this weekend?
  3. What club, extracurricular, or community service activity do you want to explore once you reach campus?
  4. How easy will it be to get from home to school and back again?
  5. How you would spend a day on/off campus? This exercise will not only help you imagine your everyday life on each campus, it will put you in a great position to answer a common inquiry: Why are you interested in this college?

How can high school students stay sane throughout the pressures of the applications process?

Heath Einstein: A couple of years ago the administration of a prestigious independent school bemoaned the fact that students work themselves to the bone just for the "keys to the kingdom." I responded that the problem is our having instilled the concept of a kingdom to begin with—some sort of Shangri-La to which students aspire. College is not an end point; it is an experience on life's journey. If students can understand that their self-worth is not determined by whether they get the thick or thin envelope, we begin to create a climate that puts this college maze into its proper perspective. Your choices in college are far more important than your college of choice.

Carolyn P. Mulligan: To keep sane in the midst of it all, participate in extracurricular activities because they interest and matter to you, and not because they look good on your application. If you follow your own path and passion in high school, you will likely continue to do so in college, and after.

Is it always a good idea for students to go straight from high school to college? When should they consider a gap-year program, a service program, a job/internship, or other alternative?

Heath Einstein: Taking time between the AP-intensive high school years and the career-preparing college years makes a lot of sense. A year living on a kibbutz or volunteering in the Negev while learning Hebrew can be a highly educational and developmental experience that can only enhance the four years to follow. The one downside to taking time off is that when you reengage with your new classmates, you might notice their lack of maturity. After all, they will have just completed senior prom, senior prank, and one last summer of beach bonfires.

*Key to Consultant Organizations

HECA: Higher Education Consultants Association
IECA: Independent Educational Consultants Association
NACAC: National Association for College Admission Counseling
NJACAC: New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling
WACAC: Wisconsin Association for College Admission Counseling