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Applying to college online: tips from an insider

As more and more admissions departments are allowing – even encouraging – students to fill out online applications, applying to college can seem almost as easy as sending an e-mail.

You can go straight to a college’s Web site to apply, rather than waiting for a form to arrive in the mail. You don’t have to worry about your messy handwriting or inability to use a typewriter. And neatness is no longer a concern – you can’t accidentally spill a cup of coffee on an online application.

Still, there are some pitfalls to watch out for, warns Ted O’Neill, Dean of College Admissions at the University of Chicago and a nationally known admissions expert.

“Electronic communication is characterized by both speed and informality,” says O’Neill. “It seems very ephemeral, but a college application is not an ephemeral document. Thinking of it that way can hurt your chances of admission.”

Before you hit the “send” button, O’Neill says, here are some key points to consider:

• Do take the application essay seriously. You will probably need to write several drafts before your essay is ready to submit. Remember, it’s not an e-mail, so don’t be tempted to use sentence fragments or colloquial language.

• Do proofread your work carefully. Even minor proofreading errors make a poor impression on admissions officers. Since it can be difficult to spot errors on-screen, print your completed application and proofread the hard copy.

• Don’t limit your communication to electronic media. If you need to ask questions or discuss special problems, feel free to contact the admissions office by phone or letter.

• Don’t submit the same application to a number of different colleges. “You wouldn’t do that if you were looking for a job,” says O’Neill. “Just as every company is different, every college is different. When students apply to the University of Chicago, we want to know they’re writing to us.”

• Don’t wait until the very last day to submit your application. Online communication may be instant – but not if your computer crashes or the server is down.

• Don’t worry about whether your application was received. Many colleges will issue you a password so you can check the status of your application online.

• Don’t rely entirely on the Web for information – choosing the right college is much too important. Be sure to request a college brochure (known as a “viewbook”), which will include more information than the college’s Web site. Even better, visit the colleges that interest you, says O’Neill: “A virtual tour is no substitute for a real tour.”