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What’s a Red Flag and How to Take It Down: Making the Most of a “Problem” Application

The application process is nerve-wracking for everyone, but you probably have less to worry about than you think. For starters, the B+ you got freshman year isn’t a Red Flag and the one tardy from last semester isn’t going to have admissions committees raising their eyebrows anytime soon. However, there are some issues that stand out on college applications, such as inconsistent information and disciplinary infractions. We’ve listed some of the major Red Flags here. If you are concerned you’ve got a “problem” application, then read on—IvyWise counselors also offer tips to help you conquer the Red Flags.

Grade Dips: If you’re normally a star mathematician but got a C or a D last semester, the admissions committee will want to know why. One bad grade can usually be easily explained, but a whole semester’s worth becomes problematic, as it looks like you’re starting to slack. Even bad grades in elective courses are also a cause for concern, especially if they’re consistent. Colleges want to see that you’re a well-rounded student who takes coursework seriously.

Curricular Changes: After three years of honors and AP, did you suddenly switch to regular classes this year? Or drop a major subject, like Math or Science? If you’re only taking electives your senior year, an admissions officer might see that as a Red Flag of academic laziness. Even if you’re the star of the drama program, colleges will want to know you can handle rigorous academic work as well.

Disciplinary Infractions: Again, a few tardies aren’t generally a problem, but expulsions, suspensions and probations definitely are. Being disciplined for something like underage drinking or academic dishonesty is a very, very serious problem for any applicant, even the valedictorian with a perfect SAT score

School Breaks: One or two absences won’t hurt your college chances, but a series of absences or four-month break from classes might. If you’ve missed a whole semester or year, changed schools at a critical time, or your grades have suffered from repeated absences, you probably have some explaining to do.

Inconsistent Information: Don’t pad your resume! Admissions officers will not only be reading your essays and brag sheet, but also what your teachers and guidance counselor have to say about you. If your current band teacher applauds your solid performance as a second-chair trumpet player and you’ve written you’re a first-chair star on your application, admissions officers will not be happy. Don’t forget that for many applicants, the review process is holistic, that is, officers consider more than just grades and test scores. If you state that you are editor in chief of the award-winning student newspaper, yet your English grades and relevant testing scores don’t reflect someone with writing ability, it is going to be a Red Flag. Just like you heard growing up, it’s important to be yourself. Of course, you may be concerned about presenting the best version of yourself, and that’s fine. But the key is to stay true to yourself.

If one or more of those first four Red Flags apply to you, then you should consider preparing an explanation. For some schools, it may be even be required. The Common Application makes the process easy by providing an “Additional Information” section. So what should you do if your application is raising Red Flags? Take a deep breath and follow these tips from the IvyWise expert counselors.

1. Admit your mistakes! Don’t just ignore the Red Flags, own up to them. Explain the situation and your role in the events. Be forthright and do not simply list out excuses, or try to minimize the damage. Be honest about your actions and admit your shortcomings. Admissions officers will appreciate the sincerity.

2. Take responsibility. Teenagers are bound to make a few mistakes, and the admissions committee will recognize this. What will make you stand out however, is dealing with the issue in a mature fashion. You may feel that the problem was not your fault or that you may have been a victim, but your college application is not the place for vigilante justice. Don’t blame your teachers, parents, friends, or classmates; instead write about what you could have done differently, how you will fix the problem, or what you have learned from the experience.

3. Give a reason for your actions. If you received bad grades one semester, maybe it wasn’t simply because you stopped caring about classes (despite what your parents may think). You may have had problems with family or friends. Perhaps your self-esteem suffered a hit or you discovered a passion for sports and didn’t know how to balance your extracurricular activities and classes. Or if you did lose motivation then explain why, and show how you worked to regain it. In any case, clue the admissions officer in. Being self-aware at a young age is a valuable trait, and explaining your motivations will demonstrate this.

4. Learn from your mistakes. Use this opportunity to show the admissions committee that you’ve thought about the impact of your actions and have worked to correct them. For example, maybe you became a youth mentor, to help younger kids with same stresses you’ve faced. Or maybe you succeeded in your resolution to get to class every day on time for the entire year. Red Flags can cause admissions officers to lose confidence in your ability to succeed at their university. By showing the ways in which you’ve grown, or how you turned failures into successes, you can rebuild their opinion and maybe even boost it higher.

Another issue you can address in the “Additional Information” section of an application is any extenuating circumstance. This is a situation that was out of your control and may have resulted in Red Flags, like bad grades, a lack of honors or AP classes, or a leave of absence from school. For instance, if pneumonia kept you out of classes for two weeks, then it is safe to assume your grades might have suffered a bit that semester. Admissions officers are not unreasonable, however they can only give you the benefit of the doubt if you provide an explanation. Recommendations from teachers and counselors can also help verify and provide validity for your situation. A doctor’s note or letter from a psychiatrist serves the same purpose.

By addressing Red Flags, you’ll be able to present a clear and responsible account of your actions and circumstances. Though you cannot go back in time, you can assure the admissions committee that your past behavior was a learning experience and not necessarily an indicator of your future actions.


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