Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Two Phrases That Kill a College Application

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Seniors, your counselors are reporting the use of two phrases in your college applications that are causing them concern. It's likely you're using one of them because you think it shows some exceptional quality. I can't honestly tell you why you're using the second one, but it isn't helping you all that much, either—and since both of them remind me of a classic movie scene, it's likely time to do something about this.


“I'm a really hard worker.” 

This phrase is turning up in college essays and counselor meetings at a level that has never been seen before. It's likely showing up so much because students think it shows some level of commitment—school means a lot to me, so I work hard at it. This  also suggests the student using the phrase is expecting some kind of payoff. Americans are raised to believe that, with a little hard work, they can do anything. OK—so, if you're a hard worker, it's time for you to win your prize in the form of an acceptance from your dream school.


Unfortunately, this phrase just doesn't do much for college admissions officers, or college in general. One admissions officer told me the phrase is a turnoff to him, since it could mean the student has to work incredibly hard just to keep up with their classes in high school. It's easy to see that as a limitation rather than a good quality. If you're working at full capacity in high school, what does that say about your ability to do harder work at college?


The other use of the phrase is just as bad. If you see college as a payoff for working so hard in high school, what does that say about your interest in making the most out of the opportunities college will bring you? Now that the prize is won, will you just sit back and rest on your laurels, treating college like a four year hiatus from reality, where you do just enough to get a degree, party like mad the rest of the time, and then head off to the world of work? Colleges tend to have loftier expectations from their students, and if your language suggests you might not share them, it's likely you won't be studying anything at that particular school.


“I really want to go there.”

The use of this phrase in a college application is nothing short of a mystery. It tends to be used by students whose grades or test scores are under the averages for admitted students. The apparent hope is, the fervent desire to attend that college is more than enough to make up a few points in GPA or test scores. It's either that, or the student is hoping the admissions office has just read another application where the student said “To be honest, I don't care if you take me or not.” If that's the case, your enthusiasm may make the difference you hope it will—but that doesn't happen too often. 


Most of the time, this phrase rings pretty hollow, a classic example of what colleges mean when they say they want the student to show them, not tell them. You really want to come here? Great. Why? What do you know about our school that makes it more special than others? What have you done to show this high level of devotion-did you attend an online information session? Send your questions about the school to an admissions officer? Look at the college website past the first screen? It's great to want something, but it's even better to put that hope into action. That's what separates the doers from the dreamers.


  1. This is so true! On top of that, these statements are very cliche. So many students default to these statements.

  2. I'm sorry, but what? I've been a counselor for 18 years and I've never seen hard work as a negative thing. Have we all really become that cynical? No wonder parents feel the need to concoct elaborate lies and pay exorbitant amounts of money to get their kids in. God forbid students work hard.