As regular readers of this blog may know, I occasionally browse College Confidential to see what sorts of issues college applicants and their parents are grappling with. A few days ago, I was glancing through a “what-are-some-realistic-schools-for-me?” thread started by an excellent student seeking academically strong realistic and safety schools. One poster suggested a well-regarded but not obscenely competitive East Coast university that seemed to be a clear match for the student, and that he would likely be accepted to without too much difficulty. 

The student’s response was something to the effect of, “But it’s not on the Common App, so why should I waste my time?” 

My immediate thought when I read that was, “If you can’t be bothered to apply to a school because it’s not on the Common App, then you shouldn’t be applying there at all.” 

It’s possible that the student was so convinced he/she was a shoo-in for very top schools that it seemed unnecessary to spend the time filling out an extra app. That is, of course, more than a little risky given how thoroughly unpredictable admissions can be. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, many students don’t fully understand the odds at top schools until the rejections start coming in. But it’s always a shame when students who would likely be admitted to outstanding schools just below the Ivy/Stanford/Duke/Chicago level of selectivity end up at their absolute backup school because they couldn’t be bothered to research places like, say, Lehigh or Emory. 

But back to my original point. 

As I’ve written about before, most colleges have a perverse incentive (in the form of USNWR rankings, among other things) to keep their applicant pools as artificially high as possible. Accepting the Common App is one easy way to do that — after all, if applicants can apply with the mere click of a mouse, who’s to say they shouldn’t? 

As a result, the onus to decide whether a long-shot application to a particular school is really a good idea gets shifted more towards the applicants. (I know that Harvard has like a 5% acceptance rate, but really, it’s like a lottery, so I might as well just thrown in an application just to see what happens. It’s easy enough…)

But after reading that exchange on CC, it occurred to me that one way applicants can wrest back some control over the process and prevent themselves from getting seduced into submitting applications to schools that probably aren’t a good fit anyway, is to ask themselves one big question: if this school didn’t accept the Common App, would I still apply? 

Basically, the amount of work you’re willing to do to apply to a school is a direct indicator of how willing you are to attend. Admissions officers also pay attention to your level of demonstrated interest, which includes the “Why this college essay?” If you’ve clearly done your research and can discuss specific aspects of a school that make it a good match for you, your application is much more likely to get a favorable reception. 

And it should go without saying, although I feel obligated to reiterate it here, that you should only apply to schools that you would genuinely consider attending. Otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s time and energy, and probably your parents’ money. If you’re only applying to a school you’re not really interested in because you can do so easily, I have some advice for you: cross it off your list.

That includes safety schools, by the way: ideally, you should have one, maybe two, schools that are good fits academically, socially, and financially; that you would be happy to attend; and that you can easily gain acceptance to. 

Schools need to protect their yield rates, so given the choice between academically/extra-curricularly equivalent applicants, they’re going to say yes to the one who’s more obviously enthusiastic about attending (aka, “Tufts syndrome,” whereby schools wait-list top applicants who are clearly using their university as a backup). 

If, on the other hand, you can’t be bothered to type your name and various other personal info into a separate website, and maybe write an additional 250-500 words for a school that would be an excellent fit for you, that’s a pretty good indicator that you haven’t seriously considered what you’re looking for (or that you have seriously unrealistic expectations about how easily you’ll be able to waltz into a school with <20% acceptance rate).

So take your time, do your research, and yes, be willing to spend a few extra hours if doing so will help you get where you want to go. You don’t want to give yourself too many options just for the sake of having options, but at the other extreme, you never know where you will — or won’t — get in, and having good options is something you don’t want to cheat yourself out of.