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You’re done with your applications! It’s an amazing feeling. Or is it?

Let’s see. The pieces are all in place: your transcripts have been sent, your letters of recommendations are uploaded, your essays are finished, your activities page is bursting at the seams. All that’s left to do is officially submit everything.

Stop. Don’t. Come back. 

Before you line up fifteen browser tabs and submit it all in a thirty-second flurry of emotion, take the time to read this post and ponder some last-minute hacks to ensure application perfection.

Unless it’s 11:59 P.M. on the date of the deadline. Then OH SWEET LORD WHAT ARE YOU DOING STOP READING AND GO SUBMIT.

If that panicked all-caps directive doesn’t pertain to you, congratulations on not being a person who leaves very important things until the last minute! This quality will do you well in college.

So come with me, and you’ll see, a world with less procrastination…

“…take a minute, to verify, your applicaaaaatiooooons.”



Just in case you are pressed for time, I’m going to give you the tl;dr version. Here are the three things you need to do before you click submit:

  1. Proofread your essays aloud to spot errors
  2. Cut the unimpressive fluff from your activity list
  3. Assess supplemental material — if it’s wonderful and unique and your application would be incomplete without it, submit it.

Let’s dive deeper into each item on the list.

Not that kind of dive, Bruce.



Stand up at your desk, clear your throat, and read all of your essays out loud.

That tip, known by many of the world’s greatest writers, might be the single best piece of advice you receive on the application process. I’m not kidding. I guarantee that you will unearth at least one typographical error, an inadvertent homophone perhaps, if not in your personal statement then in your stack of supplemental essays.

Don’t have a stack of essays because everything is on your computer? If you have access to a printer, I would also recommend printing out your essays. Holding a physical copy of your work in front of you can make a huge difference in spotting errors, too. It might have something to do with averting your eyes from the potentially harmful glare of screens, which you’ve been staring at for the entire application process.

“Yeah, but I have anti-glare lenses…”

Okay, so you have your essays printed out. You hold up your personal statement, ready to read it, but… it feels weird.

Yes! It’s supposed to feel weird. Know why? Because you’re being forced to focus entirely on the words you’ve written, which is why it’s best to read slowly and loudly, without rushing or mumbling.

This exercise is effective because there’s nothing to distract you—no messaging apps, social networks, or websites to vie for your attention. Just you and your words.

When you read your essays aloud, you magnify each phrase, sentence, and individual word. From a big picture standpoint, you get a sense of the overall structure and flow.

Most importantly, you find mistakes that you’ve skimmed over a million times, easy to miss errors like swapping “then” and “than,” or forgetting an article like “a”, “an”, or “the”.

Humans are more attuned to noticing grammatical errors when hearing words aloud. It’s easier to recognize a mistake in conversation because something about a word or phrase might not “sound” right, but you could miss the same error on the page.

The same is true when reading through your essays. You might read over a sentence a thousand times, skimming it faster and faster each read-through because your brain tells you, “It’s fine, keep going.” But when you read it aloud, it sounds funky.

Read the following sentence in your head. Then, read it aloud:

That’s when I headed down to the beach to find Greg, who spends so much time suntanning on the average summer day, and he breaks the news that we’re out of sunblock.

It’s a bit clunky, but for me, nothing jumps out when I read it on my screen. However, when I recite it, I realize it’s a grammatical nightmare. Here’s why.

The first clause is in the past tense: “that’s” can be “that is” or “that was,” but in this case it’s “that was” because “I headed down” is past tense. The second clause is okay in present tense because it’s referring to an overall, constant quality of Greg’s. The problem is that the tense of the final clause needs to match the tense of the first, so “he breaks” should be “he broke.”

Grammar lessons! As fun as a trip to the dentist.

There would be multiple revisions I’d recommend for this sample sentence, but in a pinch, the only grammatically necessary one is the tense agreement between the first and third clauses. It might be tidier to tell the whole tale in present tense, changing it all to:

That’s when I head down to the beach to find Greg, who spends so much time suntanning on the average summer day, and he breaks the news that we’re out of sunblock.

Read it aloud. Yep, it’s still not the most beautifully composed sentence, but it doesn’t have that weird “sound” anymore.

If you’re not willing to read all of your essays aloud, at least read your personal statement. It’s the biggest, most important one, and it’s getting sent to all of your schools on the Common Application.

“But Stephen,” you say, “if I stand in my room, reciting my essays, my mom is bound to think I’ve gone crazy.”

Invite her in! Reading aloud in front of an audience is even better. They will catch mistakes and offer feedback that you weren’t anticipating.

A word of warning: if you’re going to read your essays to an audience, do it long before the deadline and keep an open mind. It can be difficult to get feedback on work that is so personal, that you’ve toiled countless hours over to perfect each phrase and word placement.

I’ve seen open critique sessions go from polite gatherings to tear-soaked battles where criticism gives way to verbal assaults that lead to hurt feelings.

It’s why I’m never sharing my writing with Regina George again. She’s mean, and as my grandmother would say, quite a kvetch.

“Stop trying to make kvetch happen.”



It’s a cliché, but this phrase should be your activities mantra: quality over quantity.

The perception of some students is that a lengthy list is most impressive. Every admissions committee (AdCom) knows that if you’re in all the clubs from AA (Anime Aficionados) to ZZ (Zoology Zealots), then chances are you’re spreading yourself too thin.

“Zoology Zealots unite! With nature.”

“All of these clubs are meaningful to me!” you say.

I’m sure they are, but if you spend an hour or less per week on an activity, it’s hard to convince the AdCom that your participation isn’t perfunctory. Even if you spend more than an hour per week, the AdCom wants to know that your time spent is meaningful, since most applicants list a couple extra activities to pad their résumés.

“I really did participate in all of the clubs on my list,” you persist.

Define participate. It should mean the same thing for each extracurricular on your list.

In the case of your activities, “participate” should mean: “to devote a substantial amount of time to something I’m passionate about,” and not, “to show up once a month at an after school meeting because they had free pizza.”

Few can resist the siren song of free pizza.

Another important question for the AdCom, which The CommonApp asks about every one of your activities: “Do you intend to participate in college?” For most of your activities, the answer should be yes—not, “Yes I’m going to click yes on the CommonApp even though it’s a lie,” but, “Yes because I really care about it.”

The AdCom can tell the difference between an activity that’s meaningful to you and one that’s padding your list.

Let’s see if you can, too.

“A Practice exercise?! Cha-ching!”

Check out these two activities. Let’s say they are the first and last on your list. This is exactly how they would be presented on the CommonApp.

Activity Type: Computer/Technology
Name/Position: Robotics Club, President (senior year), Vice President (junior year)
Participation Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12
Timing of Participation: During school year
Hours per week: Avg 5, but 15-20 during eight weeks before state & national competitions in May/June
Weeks per year: 40
Intend to participate in college: Yes

Activity Type: Community Service (Volunteer)
Name/Position: Greeter at Salve Regina Hospital (during holiday season)
Participation Grade Levels: 9, 10
Timing of Participation: During school break
Hours per week: 2
Weeks per year: 2
Intend to participate in college: No

I’m not suggesting that volunteering for four total hours as a greeter at a hospital is not a great thing. I’m suggesting it has no place on the same list as something that was a centerpiece of your high school experience.

Simply put, the existence of the second activity on your list cheapens the first. It’s like when you ask kids their favorite ice cream flavor and they say, “All of them!” If all of them are equal, then there is no favorite.

They can’t all be your favorite, Patrick.

Similarly, if you list ten activities—the maximum number on the CommonApp—you’re saying that all of them are important to you. Of course they aren’t equally important, but they should each be significant. If you try to pad your list with insignificant activities, the AdCom will quickly discern which ones are fluff, and they’ll count it against you.

If you ate Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream every day for four years (as you should), would you include it on the same list as the literally Fish Food-flavored ice cream you ate twice in four years?

Of course not, and why you ate that ice cream a second time is something that requires deep personal reflection to understand.

“They said it was made with actual fish food, so I don’t know what I was expecting…”

“What if I only have three significant activities?” you ask.

Then only list those three. I’ve had students get accepted to top colleges with only one or two significant activities.

The quality of these activities, of course, was exceptional. These were all-encompassing, life-altering extracurriculars that changed the students and the world around them.

Here’s one of my favorite examples. A student of mine began a Chinese language club in earnest during her sophomore year in high school. Her intent was to introduce interested classmates in her small private school to the language and culture of her birth.

Three years later, the club had grown into an organization that offered twice-weekly free language classes to the school and the surrounding community too, with twenty students in each course, most of them adults.

That wasn’t all. The student organized festivals around major holidays like The Chinese New Year and Dragon Boat Festival that doubled as charity fundraisers.

Now that’s a quality extracurricular!

Granted, the majority of applicants don’t have a singular, defining activity. That’s why it’s doubly important for you to handpick the ones that are most meaningful to you.

A list of ten is twice as long as a list of five, but if your list of five is strong, it will have ten times the impact if it isn’t padded with five more clunkers.

Take another gander at your current list while repeating the mantra, “Quality over quantity.” After you discover what needs to go and trim down the list, celebrate with some ice cream.

Just do me a favor. Pick ONE. FAVORITE. FLAVOR. 

Or get ten because it’s ice cream.

AN ADDENDUM: If You Absolutely Positively Cannot Live Without Uploading an Activity Sheet

Some students feel the need to upload a résumé with their activities because they don’t believe the CommonApp allows enough “explanation” of extracurriculars.

In my experience, nine out of ten of these students intend to submit lengthy documents that mark every single activity and achievement, no matter how insignificant. This is madness, and it shows an inability to self-edit.

If you must submit a separate résumé, heed this advice: keep it to ONE PAGE. No more.

This is also a rule of thumb in the post-college world of the job search. It forces you to emphasize quality over quantity. Whatever fits onto that single page is the information that matters.

And no fancy tricks to jam info onto the page! I don’t want to see quarter-inch margins, size-8 Garamond font, or dividing pages into eleven columns. Keep the margins standard and the font Times New Roman size-12.

The AdCom is like a veteran teacher who’s seen it all and can’t be outsmarted. So keep your activity list slim and if you absolutely must upload a résumé, stick to the one-page limit.

“Think you’re clever, huh? You better WiseApp.”



This is the question I get most from students: “Should I submit supplemental material with my application?”

My answer? It depends.

“On what?” you ask, angry that I would be so vague on a simple yes or no question.

Well, I’m going to make you even angrier because I’m about to answer your question with a question.

Within a question within a question within a…

Here’s what you need to ask about potential supplemental material:

Is your application incomplete without it?

If the answer is yes, then submit it. If the answer is no, maybe, or “uhh I’m not sure,” then don’t submit it.

The addition of supplemental material can be an amazing way to showcase a facet of your personality that can’t be viewed in any other part of the application. It is often a way to display a talent, especially a knack for performance arts like singing and playing an instrument, or visual arts like painting, sculpture, photography, and filmmaking.

That’s not to say you should submit these materials if you have them. If you’re a casual artist, painting once in a while because you enjoy it even though it’s not a passion of yours, then your application would be complete without uploading images of your paintings.

If, however, you live to paint and spend every minute that you’re not doing homework honing your craft, then I would say that your application would be incomplete without a sample of your work.

A good tip is to select a few pieces of your best work. Don’t inundate the AdCom with supplemental material. You might be proud of the novel you’ve written (as you should be!), but select a short sample to submit, no more than a few pages.

Chapter 1. Call me Stephen…

Right now, as you’re planning the final stages of your application, consider the materials you’re attaching. Don’t submit something for the sake of it. If it’s not going to help the AdCom get a better understanding of who you are as a person—and also how talented you are because the material should be top-notch work—then get rid of it.

The Curious Case of the Withholding Applicant

There are rare applicants who aren’t planning on submitting additional materials even though they absolutely should. The main reason is usually self-criticism.

If you spend a good portion of your life devoted to a craft or pursuit that cannot be adequately conveyed in another part of the application, I would implore you to include evidence of this in your application.

“But my stuff is not very good,” you might say, “I’m an amateur.”

You’re not expected to be a pro! Also, if it’s something you spend substantial time doing, then you must believe somewhere deep within yourself that you have talent and promise. That’s why you keep doing it. Otherwise you would stop.

Here are some examples of supplemental material and suggested length:

  • Writing (poetry, non-fiction, fiction, screenwriting, anything creative, or published academic work): limit to <5 pages or <3,000 words
  • Painting, sculpture, photography, or other visual art: 4-5 photos of your best work (do NOT include originals, obviously)
  • Film/video, acting/performing: a short clip of your work, <5 minutes. If you made a longer film, select a few of the best parts. Include a link to the work on YouTube (unlisted, preferably) with a brief explanation.

If you painted a series of frescoes that helped usher in The Renaissance, you can send as many photos as you’d like.


This Is Awkward…

Finally, I can’t address the topic of supplemental material without talking about something that makes me cringe: the application video. By this, I mean a short film created by the applicant addressed a particular university.

More than once in my career, I’ve had students propose the creation of a video to include with their application, something that attempts to tell the school, “Hey, my love for you guys is serious. Here’s proof!”

Zero times in my career, I’ve told students that this was a great idea.

Application videos are sometimes serious in tone, like a monologue directed at the camera explaining why it’s the applicant’s dream to attend a particular school. Most of the time, they involve lame attempts at humor along with some kind of gimmick: a song, a comedy sketch, or fancy filmmaking and editing techniques.

One of the most famous examples of the application video is Grace Oberhofer’s musical message to Harvard, created after she found out that she was waitlisted for admission in April of 2011. She uploaded it to YouTube, intent on garnering attention from Harvard.

She got attention, just not the kind she’d anticipated.

Like wild beasts on carrion, the internet trolls attacked. The video went viral, but it seemed because people were laughing at it and not with it. In her presentation, Grace appears smart and sincere, making her a prime target. Thankfully, she emerged okay.

The more pertinent point is this: the video had zero effect on Grace’s admission to Harvard. She wasn’t accepted off the waitlist and ended up going to Tufts, a highly-selective top-tier university.

Grace was an award-winning musical performer at Tufts, too.

In the aftermath, there were two schools of thought about how people viewed and critiqued Grace. The first said, “Leave Grace alone! The video was adorable, and good for Grace for putting herself out there. It didn’t have the intended effect, but so what? It could only have helped her.”

The second school of thought was, “Big mistake! Grace tanked any chance she had at admission with that obnoxious video.”

Both schools of thought are wrong. Grace’s video neither helped nor hurt her. Anything not submitted with the application carries no weight on the admissions decision, unless it’s a relevant update (i.e. significant grade improvements, the completion of a meaningful extracurricular project, or a major award).

The way Harvard’s waitlist works is like this. If a large number of admitted applicants don’t accept the offer to enroll, then the AdCom considers people from the waitlist. It’s rare to get accepted off of it because not too many applicants reject the initial admissions offer to clear more space.

Guess how many students were offered admission from Harvard’s waitlist last year. Zero.

What could Grace have done differently? Not wasted her time on that waitlist video, for one. A letter to the AdCom letting them know she was still interested in being considered for admission, along with any relevant updates, was all that could have been done in that situation.

“Dear Harvard, I was going to film myself singing this, but I didn’t, so that’s got to count for something…”

Let’s imagine Grace created the video during the regular application process. Should she have submitted it as supplemental material?

I would have said no. It’s cute, but it’s a gimmick. As someone who spent a large amount of time in high school writing and composing music, Grace would have been best served by including in her application evidence of her original compositions, a recording of a few songs that weren’t tongue-in-cheek pleas for admission.

I’m guessing based on Grace’s gusto that she did, in fact, submit materials like this with her original Harvard application. From her résumé, it’s clear that music is a central component of her life, and her application would have been incomplete without representation of it, gimmicky ballads notwithstanding.

In recent years, there have been colleges and universities experimenting with an optional video “essay.” Most notably Tufts, Grace’s alma mater, opened their applications up to miniature cinematic creations, though they eventually abandoned the idea.

I followed the development with interest during those years, noting that very, very few good videos came out of it, while YouTube was littered with example after example of not-so-good ones. 

The moral of the story: it’s nearly impossible to create an interesting application video, so don’t try it. If making films is a huge part of your life, however, submit some of your work…

…as long as it’s not a music video for, “I’m Down with Brown,” or, “If I Don’t Get Into Yale, I Fail.”

“Hey Cornell, I think you’re swell…”



Go ahead. Click submit. For all of your applications.


HEY. You’re done. Whoa.

Time to celebrate. Throw on some music, shake out a dance, pop some bottles (of sparkling cider, obvi).

The good stuff.

Seriously, though. The hard work is behind you, and you deserve a reward, so treat yourself well…

…but only after you do these two quick things:

  1. Check the CommonApp Portal. This is your one-stop-shop for application status. If you see a green check underneath the columns for “Application” and “Writing Supplement” (if applicable) for each school, then you’re all good! A red dash under Writing Supplement means it’s not required, though many schools still have extra essays in other sections. A yellow dot means incomplete. If you still see the yellow dot but think you’ve filled in all sections, go check again. Odds are something is missing.
  2. Check your email for confirmation messages. You should get one from each individual school soon after you click submit on the CommonApp. If you don’t receive one within an hour but the application has a green check (or two green checks if a writing supplement is required), then don’t worry about it. For schools not on the CommonApp, confirmation emails can vary, but most colleges and universities will send them immediately notifying you that your application has been submitted. If the school is not on the CommonApp and you’re concerned that something went wrong with submission, reach out to the admissions office’s tech support email. This situation is very, very rare. 


You’ve clicked submit and double-checked that the applications for each school have green checks.


Celebrate. Binge-watch bad TV. Hang out with friends. Start an Imagine Dragons cover band called Envision Reptiles.

“You made me a believer, believer…”

Whatever you do to have fun and unwind after a stressful process, do that.

There’s one thing left to do, but it can wait a few days. It’s still massively important though: write thank you notes to your recommenders.

Not emails. Not texts. Not verbal thank yous, though you should have already doled out tons of those.

You need to write actual letters or notes to express gratitude to these excellent individuals. Their words mean a lot to AdComs, so you should tell them how thankful you are that they’ve played a big role in your applications.

After that, all that’s left to do is wait for admissions decisions.

Relax! It’s out of your hands now.

Although, that’s one of those things people say to calm you down, but it can do the opposite.

“It’s out of my hands? That means somebody else is controlling my destiny. Yeezus!”

I miss the old Kanye.

But seriously. Relax. Or try to. You’ll be fine.


p.s. If you’re not yet a high school senior but still enjoyed this article, give me a shout. I’m offering free monthly application planning classes starting in February.

Y’know, if you’re into life-changing stuff that’s free.



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