— Avoid “Fluff” —

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Fundamental Mistake #6: Including “Fluff” in Your Application


Application HandLet me make something clear right now:

College admissions officers have seen it all.

Do you have some sort of “sneaky” way of “padding your application?” Well, like everyone else in the universe, admissions officers don’t like the feeling of being lied to and deceived, and if they feel that there’s even an ounce of BS in your application, they’re going to kick you to the curb.

When I used to run my tutoring firm, I’d get multiple applications a day from aspiring tutors. Many of them would start off well – the applicants would have near-perfect SAT scores, extensive experience, impressive educations, etc. But then, I’d see something like the following under the “experience” column:

Job #3: Starbucks Barista. Learned how to approach and demonstrably exceed the expectations of others, fulfill customer demand, manage an intensive workflow situation, overcome obstacles….”


Lines like this in a resume make applicants look foolish and ridiculous. More importantly, and far worse, they make the applicants look like LIARS.

Lines like this insult my intelligence. There’s nothing wrong with being a barista – it demonstrates work ethic, and I personally believe that everyone should experience working behind a counter at some point in their lives – it builds character. However, barista experience isn’t going to help you be an SAT tutor, and suggesting that it is just makes you look like (A) a liar, (B) a jerk, or (C) perhaps both.

When it comes to your college applications, PLEASE do not include any remotely iffy qualifications and “experiences” and think that the admissions officers won’t notice.

As I said before, and at length in my free guide to the SAT Subject Tests, you need a specialty, but you can’t just say you have it. You need to prove it. Joining a club one month before you apply to college does not prove your interest in that club (and in general, club membership is totally useless unless you’re in a leadership position).

Furthermore, colleges don’t want Jacks of all trades – they want specialists. Adding a random line item onto your application won’t help you, but it does have the potential to make you look foolish.

Want some examples I’ve seen in actual applications?

Exhibit A:

Community Service: Habitat for Humanity, Barbados – helped the poor, learned key skills in teamwork and cooperation, and gave back to the human race (sic).”

Translation: My parents paid for me to go to Barbados on a spring break trip, and I spent an afternoon hammering a few boards together while I talked to my friends.

Sorry….your lavish vacation-masked-as-community-service is fooling nobody. You’d be better off just writing, “Habitat for Humanity, Spring, 2012” with zero explanation than to try and “sell” this experience as something meaningful.

Exhibit B:

Extracurriculars: Model UN. Dates: [2 months earlier-present]. Attended multiple meetings – learned diplomacy, debate, and international relations.”

Translation: My mom/counselor told me I needed to join a club, so I went to Model UN a few times before I applied so that I wouldn’t have to leave this field blank.

If you’re not in a leadership position, clubs don’t mean much. Furthermore, if you joined two months earlier, the transparency is painful. This is why you need to start early – so you can build an actual track record of meaningful activities in the specialty to which you aspire.

Colleges want SPECIALISTS – trying to “add spice” to your resume by throwing in ridiculous stuff like this just waters everything down and makes you look ridiculous. If you want to join model UN for fun, by all means, go for it – but don’t try to sell it on your application.

Exhibit C:

Sports: Manager, Girl’s Soccer Team (writer’s note: this was a boy’s application). Gained leadership skills, inventory management abilities, and learned to mediate disputes (sic).”

Translation: I am a highschool boy who likes watching girls play soccer, feeding them oranges during halftime, and relentlessly trying to get a date with one of them because I can’t play football.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with doing extra activities here or there, but don’t try to sell them as if they’re actual qualifications!!!

Remember, again: schools want specialists, not “well rounded” people who do lots of random junk all the time. Just follow my golden rule for extras like this:

When in doubt, toss it out.

Crossitout“Giving blood one time” in the Community Service field won’t get you into college, but it will make you look like a desperate applicant with nothing going for him.

If community service is your thing, then by all means, play it up! Talk about the money you’ve raised, the help you’ve given people, the organization you’ve helped to bolster, and the community service organizations you plan on joining at the college. But if it’s not, don’t make pathetic excuses for community service just so you have something to say. Leave the field blank – you’ll be better off.

Now that that’s off my chest (phew), there’s one more thing I need to address. It is, without a doubt, THE biggest mistake that everyone makes when applying to colleges, and could be the single largest factor in admissions: forgetting that admissions are about COMPARISON, and NOT about absolute value. And for that, we’ll flip to the next page.

Section Summary:College admissions officers have seen it all – you cannot trick them. If you don’t have genuine items to put in your application, don’t put anything at all. Random club memberships, half-hearted community service attempts, etc. all fit the bill. Just cut off all randomized, non-focused activities and focus on your specialty, and don’t add fluff to your application.
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