Top 10 WORST Ideas to Market Yourself to Colleges

What wouldn’t parents and students do for admission to elite colleges these days? The competition’s fierce. Selective schools are deluged with eager applicants from across the globe who’ve aced their SATs and ACTs, have 4.0 GPAs, and have racked up a nice pile of 5s on their AP exams.

If you’re a parent, you want your son or daughter to get ahead and will welcome any clever advice from exclusive and even rogue college counselors. As a student, you probably just want in. So whatever works, right?

As hard as you’re working to get into that dream school, please don’t get suckered into one of these douche-y moves. As crazy as some sound…they’re real! Real students and parents have done some boneheaded things under the pressure of college admissions. And you may feel like the competition will do anything to get ahead, so why shouldn’t you? But these are more turn-off than sure thing.


1) An expensive trip to [insert third-world country here] for Common App essay material.

In my time helping students ace their tests, I have known exactly two who went on one of these elaborate trips across the globe for authentic reasons. These two teens were actually obsessed with community service; that was their “thing.” (Also, one of them babysat 15 hours a week for a year to pay for the trip herself.) But most of the time, this choice isn’t so much a reflection of the student’s real priorities as an effort to add an accomplishment and a gloss of altruism to a resume. College admissions officers can, and do, see right through this.

2) Touting fake, uninspired, or mandatory community service.

Similarly, unless this is your passion or something you went above and beyond with, put it at the bottom of your activities list, please. Since pretty much every high school requires it, this one does not make you stand out.


3) Racking up extracurriculars even though you don’t enjoy them.

Maybe you’re collecting varsity letters in a sport that doesn’t make you look forward to practice anymore, or maybe you’ve joined the chess team because someone told you it looked good on college applications. Life is too short to do something you hate, and all that time is time you could have been spending doing stuff you actually find meaningful. College admissions officers look for applicants who are driven by what they’re doing…not by how they think it will look. And yes, they can tell.

4) Spending all your time on an activity that you don’t plan on continuing in college.

Universities want students with the interest and drive to fill all their clubs and teams and departments, so their campuses are well-rounded. Don’t taunt the universities with your talent that they won't get to utilize…show them the talent and passion that you WILL use to contribute to the campus you end up on!


5) Focusing on test prep at the cost of your life.

No test score—no, not even a perfect one—will save you from a lack of passion and personality. Period.


6) Having someone else write your admissions essay.

There’s a chance you may be able to get away with this increasingly common trick…but not a big one. Several schools look at the essay you wrote for the ACT or SAT as a safeguard against such unscrupulous practices. Also, any interviewer worth her salt will know when the student she’s speaking with isn’t the same person who wrote the essay. Your “voice” won’t be the same. Get caught, get cut from the short list. Not worth the risk. Not to mention the ethics.


7) Getting a part-time job solely because you want to “show work experience” and “appear down to earth.”

If you wanted to pay for your DJ equipment yourself because your parents weren't going to foot the bill, that’s a great story about working independently to achieve your goals. But don’t run out and become a Starbucks barista so you can write your Common App essay about how “enlightened” you are for working in the service industry. It’s already been done, and admissions officers are onto the copycats!


8) Founding a non-profit to show “leadership.”

I admit, at first, this unorthodox idea seemed…well, kind of clever. After all, plenty of ambitious young people might dream of making a difference in the world, and about stepping into leadership roles. But…seriously? If you’re for real about making a difference, you’ll be found in the trenches, not reinventing the wheel for the sake of your résumé. And yes, once again…college admissions officers can smell a fake, and they’re understandably not so interested in students who think they have nothing to learn. This is one that parents should nip in the bud, definitely not back.


9) Fudging a neuropsychologist’s evaluation for extended time on the SAT and ACT.

Real neuropsychological issues, even previously-undiagnosed learning issues, can affect a student’s ability to show off her strengths on a standardized test. That requires extended or double time, and maybe even accommodations, and I've worked with plenty of students who needed and deserved those things. That’s not what I’m talking about here. 

What I’m talking about here is paying off the family’s doctor friend to falsely say that your teen deserves extended time—as a test-taking strategy. You may get away with it, but you’ll know the resulting score is unearned. College preparation is an entry into independence and adult responsibility. This shady maneuver would be a very bad beginning.


10) Foregoing your real passion in lieu of something else, because you think your real passion won’t get you into college.

This is more sad than anything else. You live only once! When you discover what really lights you up, you should hold onto it and figure out where it leads you. The right college for you is a place that will value and appreciate what you have to offer. The wrong college for you is one where you have to become something other than yourself to get in…regardless of how prestigious the name may be.

Once again, that fakeness will likely be glaringly obvious to whomever reads your application. So you probably won’t get the result you wanted, anyway. And at the cost of your happiness. 


Sensing a theme here? It’s this: be authentic.

Colleges want real people with real interests, real passion, real drive. Aren’t those the people we all gravitate towards? Knowing the system is one thing. You should know the system. Trying to game it is quite another matter.

The craziness of the college process can make even generally sane, grounded, self-assured parents and students consider doing things they otherwise wouldn't. Don't let anxiety and fear drive your college process! I've found that a good game plan goes a long way towards relieving the pressure of this stressful time. And always remember that your authentic self will get you into the right school for you.