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What to Do If Your College Application Isn’t Perfect

Being perfect is impossible and it rarely helps a student stand out in the application process. In fact, imperfections and how students respond to them can be the most powerful part of their story. There are many ways to explain or provide more detail on a certain situation. This information should sometimes come from the school counselor, the student, or both. The trick is to know who should share it in the application, how to do that, and where. Here is a full-proof way to handle all of life's curveballs in the college application:

  • If there is a delicate, very private or important situation about a student (and the student doesn’t feel comfortable sharing it), the school counselor should mention this in their letter of recommendation. The student (and the family) should sit down with the school counselor well in advance of the college process (spring of junior year or early fall of senior year) to provide context and details. The school counselor can be the person who shares this information in a professional and objective way.
  • If the student suffered a brief, finite illness which impacted their academic performance in a contained way (one course, one semester, etc.), the school counselor can easily explain that in their letter of recommendation. As long as the student had a full recovery and the academic performance quickly returned to normal, it is best not to put too much emphasis on this.
  • If the student had to take time off from school due to illness, academic dishonesty, or discipline, this information should be provided by the school counselor in the letter of recommendation. In addition, the student should write a clear, mature explanation of what happened, the consequences, and what they learned from this experience. If the issue was due to academic dishonesty or discipline, the student should be extraordinarily contrite in how they present this information. Taking responsibility is absolutely essential in this explanation.
  • If the student has dealt with and/or continues to deal with a longstanding illness or issue (personal, medical, etc.), the school counselor can mention this in their letter of recommendation. I would also recommend that the student comment on this as well. The student can write about this in the "Additional Information" section of the Common App. While it's possible to write a full-blown 650-word additional essay about this, sometimes this is better explained by a simple paragraph. You don't want this piece of your story to dominate your application. Be very judicious with how much time is spent on this topic in the application - from what the school counselor writes to what the student (and even other teachers) write.
  • There are a handful of times when it is appropriate for a student to write their Common App essay or their main college essay on a particular imperfection or a very difficult experience. The most appropriate times would be when it is not mentioned anywhere else on the application and the student feels like without it their story wouldn’t be complete. Just make sure the thrust of the essay is less about the negative experience and more about the response. The essay should have a silver lining of positivity or a positive message by the end of the essay (or earlier). When that happens, admissions officers will respond positively in return.

Students have more control over what's in their application when they take charge. They should discuss with their school counselor and the teachers who will be writing for them anything they want or don't want mentioned in their letters of recommendation. If every letter, every essay, and every chance the student gets mentions this imperfection or not-so-perfect situation, then they are only defined by that one thing. And, that rarely helps them. Instead, when students consider the issue and how it's presented, they will be defined by the totality of their application and will have better results in the end.