red_flagIn the adult world, it is fairly common, almost expected, for one’s resume to exaggerate their past achievements. A babysitting gig can easily become experience “managing an energetic group of young associates” and an office filing job demonstrated your ability to “promote synergy and vertical integration for data-management systems.” These examples are not lies in the sense that they are not conjured from thin air, but are rather comically souped-up versions of the truth.

Compare that to famous examples of adults who have achieved notoriety for flat-out fabrications. Frank Abagnale of Catch Me if You Can fame, managed to work in high profile professions such as physician, lawyer, and airline pilot without possessing a single credential. MIT’s Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones, was exposed in 2007 of not actually having earned any of the three degrees she claimed on her resume. Amazingly, she had been at MIT for 28 years and had even been bestowed an award as their best administrator.

In the college admissions realm, you’d be surprised how often students, in an effort to make themselves stand out, go a little too far in exaggerating their accomplishments and end up putting forth contradictory or incompatible information. For example, if a student’s resume claims that they had a lead role in The Glass Menagerie but their drama instructor’s recommendation lauds them for their admirable work as a stagehand, suspicions will inevitably arise. This is one of many ways applicants can stretch the truth and risk setting-off an admissions counselor’s BS-alarm.

Write the essays yourself

One of the bigger hotspots for eyebrow-raising contradictions comes on the essay section. A student with a 480 score on the writing SAT whose admissions essay is composed with Hawthorne-level prose will raise more red flags than a Kyrgyzstani color guard (their flags are red – Google it!).

Regardless of your literary bona fides, Admissions officers expect your essay to be written in a 17 or 18 year-old voice, not a 40 year-old voice, unless of course you are a middle-aged applicant, in which case writing in a teenage voice would be quite strange. Leave the “quarter” words resting in the pages of your SAT study guides and stick with language of the small change variety. We’re not saying to dumb anything down, but if an admissions officer comes across an essay littered with words like “lugubrious” or “perfidy,” they are going to assume that your essay was written by either a paid essay coach or the ghost of a 19th century crime reporter.

Of course you should get feedback and editing assistance from adults throughout your essay-writing process. Just make sure that as you incorporate their advice on grammar, flow, sentence-structure, etc., you do not accidentally incorporate their voice as well.

Be honest about extracurriculars

Do not exaggerate your level of volunteer, work, or extracurricular experience or the number of weekly hours that you spent engaged in such activities. The notion that you somehow volunteered at a nursing home 20 hours per week, while playing three varsity sports, taking four AP classes, and editing the school newspaper seems logistically impossible and, if it somehow was true, still sounds more unhealthy than impressive.

There is no reason to be less than 100% honest about what you did in your spare time during high school. Some students, short on activities, panic at the sight of so much blank space on their extracurriculars section that they resort to grossly embellishing or completely inventing clubs, sports, jobs, and the like. This phenomenon is seen way too often in admissions offices around the country—the applicant from the Great Plains region who founded a spelunking club, the do-gooder who alleges to have volunteered more hours than exist in a week, and the teen who claims to fluently speak five languages but seems to have trouble remembering any of them during the interview. If you need proof that this way of operating always ends in disaster, see George Constanza’s antics in just about any Seinfeld rerun.

Your interests should match your past pursuits

This last topic is not an issue of dishonesty but rather sheer incongruity. Some candidates stated academic interests in terms of college and career are not at all supported by their past experience. If you claim to be passionate about political science and yet passed up the chance to take AP Government & Politics senior year in favor of a massive block of study halls, you have some ‘splaining to do. This is not to say that the above scenario cannot represent a sincere and compelling true story. Maybe you had no interest in history until you watched the film Lincoln this past summer, which then led you to clear out the history/politics section at Barnes and Noble, igniting a passion that fueled your search for the nation’s top poli-sci programs, and forever changed your life course. No problem. Just be sure to chronicle your unique journey in the application.

Falsifying any part of your application can actually cause an applicant more harm than a mere blemish or two. Believe it or not, an admissions officer does not want to see a supernaturally well-rounded applicant who claims to have filled every waking moment with some type of extracurricular activity and even volunteered for a sleep study at a research institute just to cover those embarrassingly lazy non-waking moments. Colleges want to see a real human being capable of communicating their passions and actual life experience. Be genuine. In the world of college admissions, an honest stagehand is always a more marketable applicant than a fraudulent lead player.

Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).