DO Sweat the Small Stuff!

You’ve planned your strategy:  Take challenging classes—check!  Tackle the SAT or ACT and send your scores to colleges—check!  Choose teachers who know you well to write your letters of recommendation—check!  Create a college list and pare it down to a reasonable number—check!  Write that 500-word Common App essay—check!  Create an activities list—check!

Take care of those tasks, and you’ll be at the finish line, right?

Maybe not.  Many students, after tackling the college-related tasks they perceive to be most important, begin to relax and take the “small stuff” less seriously.  But taking the “small stuff” seriously can often make a real difference.

Consider some of the following frequently glossed-over college-related tasks:

•     Written communication

        Do you have a professional e-mail address (or at least one that’s not sketchy) to use when communicating with colleges?  An off-color address can create a questionable impression. 

        Are you prepared to write to college-admission offices in “real English,” not with texting shortcuts or slang?  u better b! 

        If you need to communicate with a college office of admission by mail (remember snail mail?), do you know how to address and put the right amount of postage on an envelope?  If you don’t, that important letter might never find its way to the right place! 

        Did your parents encourage you to write thank-you notes to acknowledge courtesies or help you received?  Small gestures such as handwritten thank-you notes say a lot about you.

•     Telephone communication

        You’ve called the office of admission to ask an incredibly important question.  Did you jot down the name, title, and phone number of the person who helped you?  If not, the promise you were given that dropping calculus in your senior year shouldn’t jeopardize your admission status could be an empty promise indeed if you can’t remember who told you it would be okay. 

        Couldn’t reach the person you hoped to contact?  If you didn’t leave a message, clearly stating your name, telephone number (including area code), and purpose for the call, it’s as if you never called at all! 

        If you become anxious at the thought of leaving a message, write it down before you call, just in case.

•     In-person communication

        Do you realize that a firm handshake and direct, warm eye contact have an impact on the impression you make on others?  Overly casual or careless personal communication might be noted, and, believe me, it will not be noted in your favor!

        Dress appropriately for visits to college offices, even if you do not plan to have a formal interview. Slovenly or inappropriate dress, earbuds you haven’t thought to remove, and careless personal hygiene will be noticed! 

        While you’re thinking about the impression you’ll make, remember that texting or checking your cell phone during an interview or tour will be considered a strong sign of lack of interest in your current surroundings and the purpose at hand.  Power down that phone or leave it in the car!

•     Personal courtesy

        Perhaps it never occurred to you that the way you treat the secretary in the guidance office at your high school or the way you greet and treat the administrative assistant in a college office of admission could have an impact on the success of your application. Think about it!  Extend every courtesy to the people who send out transcripts or answer phones at your high school. They’ll be far more eager to be helpful if you do, and might even be willing to go out of their way to help if you encounter difficulties along the way.  The person at the front office of a college office of admission, believe it or not, communicates (daily!) with the people in the back offices—those who review your application.  Rudeness of any kind is quickly reported.  Not the impression you want to leave.

•     College courtesy

        While some examples of “college courtesy” will not have an impact on your admission, behaving courteously is part of becoming a successful young adult.  When a college contacts you for information or follow-up, respond promptly, even if the info you provide will help the college more than it will help you.  Sure, you’re going to jump to respond when a college says it is missing materials that will complete your application.  But will you be as thoughtful and quick to respond if a college asks you for information that will help it provide the type of reliable demographic information you and other students count on? 

        On May 1, when you’ve made your college decision (whew!), if a college has asked you to perform the courtesy of saying, “No thank you, I’m going elsewhere,” show respect for the institution that did you the honor of admitting you, and respond!

•     Personal responsibility

        Sure, your parent could call the college to set up that interview or ask that question that’s been on your mind.  But communicating with colleges is your job—and you might not even realize that some colleges take note of such contacts, especially when the contact is with a specific representative assigned to your high school’s territory.  Colleges truly hope you are capable of handling such details yourself!  If you have supportive, helpful parents, lucky you!  Remember, though, that college-related tasks (with the possible exception of pulling out the credit card to pay fees) are yours, not your parents'. Relegating those tasks to parents could lead to the impression that you’re not a mature, competent applicant.


To be continued… Come back tomorrow for more "small stuff" that can make a big difference.


Alice Kleeman has served as the college advisor for 18 years in Menlo- Atherton High School's College and Career Center. A public high school of 2,000 students in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kleeman enjoys serving Menlo-Atherton's diverse population of students. The school's motto is "Strength in Diversity."


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