College Smart Advising

My Thoughts on College Applications

application process

All or Nothing


When I am helping students revise essays, one of the first projects is to conduct a search for the word “always”. Always usually appears in sentences like, “I have always wanted to be a pediatric oncologist.” and “I have always loved behavioral economics.” Really? You wanted to be a pediatric oncologist when you were five? The rest of us wanted to be firefighters, or teachers, or Mulan. You must have been a fun sight to see when you trick-or-treated in your oncologist costume.

I understand the appeal in making these “always” claims in your college application essays. You want to sound like you have a plan - that you have everything mapped out for your future. But, when you overstate your case and operate in absolutes, you end up undermining the point you are trying to make. By claiming you have everything figured out, you lose credibility as a writer and waste the good will of your reader. Do you really want to begin your Personal Statement with an assertion that is, at best, inaccurate (and, at worst, untrue)?

The first law of personal statements is: “Show, Don’t Tell.” Always statements are one of the worst forms of telling because “always”, and its fraternal twin, “never”, are symptoms of “all or nothing” thinking, a cognitive disorder that can lead to unrealistic expectations. Things are black or white, good or bad, you are either successful or an absolute failure. None of these things are true. The world is always filled with nuances and possibilities.

Instead of telling us what you always wanted, show us why you are inspired to pursue a certain career interest or how you developed a fascination with a specific area of study. Instead of always, embrace the ideas of “currently fascinated by” or “based on my experiences” or “I’d like to learn more about”. And if you did dress up as an oncologist for Halloween, share that experience with us, we’d love to learn more about it in your personal statement (and I’d love to see photos).

Decision Day

It is hard not to view the end of the college application season as the grand finish line to the marathon process of researching colleges, drafting and revising essays, and submitting applications. 

For some, the finish line is a celebration with balloons and a Gatorade bath. If this is your story, Congratulations on your good news! Take a moment to reflect on your journey and thank the people who helped you: your parents, teachers, counselors, friends, and others. But, after the confetti settles, keep in mind that your story is just beginning. Simply getting in is not enough. Make sure you keep up the pace that brought you here, finish high school and start college with determination, energy, and enthusiasm to take advantage of the opportunities you have been given.

Unfortunately, other students may not receive the results they had been dreaming about. Instead of the hoped-for outcome, they receive a polite email with soothing platitudes about how competitive the applicant pool was. And, other students may be waitlisted at their top choice and discover that the finish line has shifted from Spring and into Summer. These students might question whether all of their efforts over the past few months and years was wasted. I get it. Rejection sucks. Take a moment to mourn. And then, my advice to you should sound familiar: Thank the people on your support team. Choose a new destination and rededicate yourself to embracing the challenges and opportunities of the coming years.

Getting into one college or another does not guarantee success. Likewise, not getting in, does not make you a failure. The reality is, that, no matter the outcome of this round of decisions, the race has just begun. Lace up your shoes and grab some Gatorade, you have many more miles to go.