7 Tragic Applicant Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Making applications to multiple schools is a time-consuming and costly endeavor. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices of where to attend, your application is your ticket not only to admission but often to financial aid, as well.
Having read application files for years now, I’ve noticed several all-too-frequent mistakes applicants make in the process of completing their applications. A seasoned Admissions Committee can spot these mistakes a mile away, and they really do have an impact on their decisions.
So, here’s a list of the top seven most frequent – and heinous – application offenses, as well as how to avoid them (at all costs!).
1 Misspellings and/or Poor Grammar
Nothing says “I whipped this application essay together at the last minute” like a glaring set of grammatical or spelling errors. For the love of all that’s good in this world, please, please, please use spell check. Channel your 8th grade grammar teacher who taught you the difference between “they’re” and “their” and “there.” (Hi, Ms. Norville!)
Once you’ve read your essays over many times you may have trouble editing them yourself, so ask others to read and edit them for you. The more eyes that review your materials, the more likely they will be pristine grammatically. Admissions professionals may not be grammarians at their core, but they will be quick to judge your academic capability depending on the frequency of such errors in your application. One minor offense on an essay should not keep you from admission at most schools, but they do not bode well if repeated several times throughout, and should be avoided altogether.
2 The (How) Personal Statement
How can you tell if your Personal Statement is the right amount of “personal?”
Most seminaries provide a basic outline or word count for the Personal Statement, but there is often a lot of wiggle room in which to craft that masterpiece of yours. The Personal Statement is your place to shine, to show that you know how to write reasonably well, and that you have experiences that make you ripe for seminary study. This should be the one piece in your application that makes your Admissions Committee smile, thinking how well you would do at their institution. It is the piece I most look forward to reading in applicants’ files.
However, the major pitfall of the Personal Statement is either making it way too personal or not personal enough. Remember that making an application is a professional act, so your writing should be crafted with professional decorum in mind. This means no gratuitous cursing and no shortened colloquial language (totes!), and it means being as succinct as possible with your stories. And yet there should be something, well, personal about the statement. Feel free to show a bit of personality, and choose relevant, brief stories as representative of your larger life narrative.
3 Why I want to go to **Insert School Here**
You are applying to a select number of schools, so it is very important to show that you have done your homework to learn why each seminary is a good fit for you. I am always impressed when applications show that the prospective student has gone online to the Boston University School of Theology website, or even visited campus, to get a sense of this School and its ethos. When a student can articulate how her own interests are an excellent fit with our faculty, legacy, and/or curriculum, then I know she is taking her application seriously.
Conversely, when I read an application and could just as easily stick the name of another seminary in where “Boston University School of Theology” is mentioned, that is unfortunate. An even worse faux pas is when an applicant has done just that – copied and pasted different seminaries throughout the same personal statement – and then forgotten to make them all match. If I am reading a statement for Boston University that says, “and that is why Drew University is the place for me,” it’s a major turn-off, even though Drew is a very fine place, indeed. (That being said, I’m not upset when a letter of reference makes a similar mistake, which sometimes happens, since that was out of the hands of the applicant.)
Admissions officers know that you’re applying to multiple places – that’s fine and expected – just make sure to clarify why you’re making this particular application.
4 The Early Bird Catches the Worm
As “Queen of the Procrastinator People” I understand the feeling: you’ll get around to it eventually. But when it comes to admissions deadlines, that doesn’t cut it: you simply must meet the deadlines set by the institution to which you are applying.
This is the most basic of mistakes and, from my experience, one of the most-frequently made. An application deadline means that all materials – the ones you are responsible for sending (application form, personal statement, essay) and the ones that others must send on your behalf (references, transcripts, test scores) – should all be submitted to the Admissions Office by that date. Most Admissions Offices have a strict schedule of deadlines not to frustrate or trick applicants, but because of the sheer volume of materials they receive and the necessity to get these materials to their Admissions Committees for prompt review. An entire field of applications must travel together to the Admissions Committee, so late materials could hold up not only your own consideration but the decisions on dozens of other applicants.
5 If Life Hands You Lemons . . . Make Lemonade
So it’s a week before the deadline and you know something is missing from your file.
You have been diligent with your process, but a faculty member is out of town and hasn’t responded to your reference request, or the Admissions Office at the school to which you’re applying says they haven’t received your test scores.
What do you do?
In the words of Tim Gunn, you make it work. Don’t sit idly by worrying or checking in with the Admissions Office three times per day asking if such-and-such arrived yet. That gets cumbersome when 42 other folks are doing the same thing. If you know what is missing, call or email the Admissions Office to ask if they would accept another version of that credential sent in a more expedited way.
For example, a letter of reference emailed directly from a professor, a PDF version of the self-reported GRE score you were given when you took it, or a copy of your transcript faxed from the Registrar’s Office of your previous educational institution.
These methods of submission aren’t typical, but I know that our Admissions Office will accept them as temporary credentials and move an application forward to be considered even as we await “official, signed” copies of such materials. If a person is admitted and still has such a credential pending, we must receive the official copy before the admission is made final – but at least that buys the applicant more time and gets their application in for consideration by the deadline.
6 Stack the Deck
It might be a good idea to pursue one more reference than the Admissions Office actually requires.
References are the item most out of an applicant’s control, and, at least here, are often the culprits leading to a late application. You can minimize the chance of that by asking for a reference early enough that the person referring you has ample time (as in 2 months) to complete the work. Faculty are particularly busy folks, especially when multiple people are asking for references all around the same time. Plus, you are likely to get a better reference written for you if your referring person can take his or her time with the assignment.
That being said, life happens, and sometimes references just don’t complete their letters on time. That’s why I suggest asking one additional person to be a reference from the get-go, even if you feel confident that all your references will come through. That way you’re sure to have enough references submitted at the deadline for you to be considered for admission.
7 When the Mistake is Ours
At the end of the day Admissions professionals are only human.
Though it’s hard for me to admit, this means that mistakes can occasionally be made with applications. When dealing with thousands of individual credentials each year, a transcript may accidentally be misfiled, resulting in the false assumption that the transcript hasn’t arrived yet. In the worst cases (that, thankfully, only happen once in a great while) this kind of mistake can delay an applicant’s file from being labeled complete. Mistakes like this are unintentional and avoided as much as possible, but on the occasion that they do occur, please try to offer your friendly Admissions Office staff a little grace.
When such a mistake affects you, first assess the damage: for example, did this cause you nervousness and frustration, or did it actually keep you from being considered for admission or financial aid? In the first case you can certainly express your frustration to the staff, but you shouldn’t berate them. Berating an Admissions Officer could hinder your application – if a faculty learns that you reacted disproportionately upset to a minor mistake, they may not be interested in having you in class.
On the other hand, if the Admissions staff’s mistake did keep you from consideration or financial aid and they don’t seem eager to provide recompense, you may need to take more direct action. Remember that there is a hierarchy at every institution. Any complaint you have about your treatment during the Admissions process should be sent directly to the Director/Dean of Admissions, who will be able to explain or fix the problem. If your complaint is professional and well-meaning, you may find that it actually supports your case for admission.
But, again, if there’s no harm done, my suggestion is to forgive and forget, which will show the Admissions staff what a good sport you are. After all, you may have committed a mistake or two from the above list yourself, and wouldn’t you want us to give you grace?
Have you ever made an application mistake that made you want a do-over? Share your story in the comments!
Anastasia Kidd was once a confused seminarian looking for her own calling, but is now the Director of Admissions for the Boston University School of Theology. For more suggestions on discernment, check out the Admissions section of the School of Theology website.