How Much Should You Personalize Each College Application?

US News and World Report

November 9, 2011

Widespread use of the Common Application has made it difficult for students to really personalize their application to a specific school. So what can you do? As one of our experts in this week’s column suggests, “send the college a love letter.”

Q: How tailored to each school should a college application be?

A: Treat each application as if it is the only one.
Stacey Kostell, director of admissions, University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign

It’s important to remember that you are applying to individual universities. Much of the information on every application will stay the same, like your personal information (address, grades, etc.). However, the essay questions will be starkly different. I strongly encourage you to direct your essays to the question. So many applicants miss this! Don’t submit the personal statement you wrote in English class. Don’t submit a Common App essay question for a specific application essay question. If you are too busy to write individual essays for each school, you are applying to too many universities. The worst thing you can do is submit an essay that states, “The University of Michigan is my dream school,” when applying to University of Illinois, especially when Illinois is your first choice!

A: One and done…not so fast!
Mary-Ann Willis, college counselor

The elephant in the college application room: those who espouse the one-and-done mentality don’t give the same attention to the supplements and the “why college X?” questions. If those are cookie-cutter approaches, the applicant may well be toast. Consider the unwritten college application guidelines. College Y says and means one teacher recommendation. College Z says one, too, but overtly encourages additional meaningful recommendations. The essential rule to follow: do exactly what the college tells you to do as you apply. A killer Common App essay is expected. The applicant who neglects the institution-specific extras does so at his or her peril. Applying is, well, complicated–and rarely as simple as “one and done.”

A: When it comes to college applications, think couture.
Katherine Cohen, founder and CEO, IvyWise

Become an expert on the colleges you’re applying to and tailor each application accordingly. Colleges look for demonstrated interest. They want to see that you’ve done your research, you’re excited about attending their school, and you’ll make an impact on their campus. Even if you apply through the Common Application, there are often school-specific supplements that ask, “Why this school?”

Even before my students add a college to their wish list, I have them complete an “Imagining I’m There” exercise picturing freshman year at that school. I ask them to consider the three Cs–classroom, campus, and community. What courses would they take and with which professors? Which organizations/activities would they join on campus? Which research and study abroad opportunities are of interest? Which school traditions do they want to maintain? How would they volunteer and get involved in the larger campus community? This information also should be reflected in each college application.

A: If proposing marriage, would you not tailor your proposal to that person?
Kristine Hintz, founder, Position U 4 College

The National Association for College Admission Counseling has found that 21 percent of colleges participating in its annual Admission Trends survey say that “demonstrated interest” is of considerable importance in the admissions decision. In a world where it is easy to apply to many colleges due to technology, but where admissions people are pressured to accurately predict yield, they want to know that an applicant is genuinely interested in their school. If they offer admission, they want to know there is a good chance that the applicant will actually enroll.

Think of a college application like a marriage proposal. It should follow a courtship (i.e., researching the website, visiting the school, interviewing with alums, making contact with the regional admissions reader who visits the high school). Who would say yes to a marriage proposal that was like a form letter? Customize as much as possible: Remind the admissions people of your visit and name specific programs that intrigue you in your application supplement. Tailor it as much as you can!