This week I was driving with my two kids in the car.  My six-year-old son turns to his big sister out of the blue and says, “I have more points that you could ever have on Disney games!”

This sounded like the start of a fight.  They’ve been home all summer and are beginning to get on each other’s nerves.  But before I launched into another lecture, I asked, “Why did you say that to your sister?  It sounded like you wanted to make her feel bad.”

He was surprised, “No, I want Margaret to be proud of me.  She doesn’t even play the Disney Junior games on the computer.”  A simple misunderstanding.

This type of communication error was exactly what I explained to some students earlier in the week– it’s not only what you say, but also how you choose to say it.  In my son’s case, he thought his eleven year old sister would be impressed with his accomplishments, not knowing that the way he said it came across as hostile.  Many students have the same problem in clearly expressing their achievements to colleges and universities.

Whether in an admissions essay, interview, email, or casual encounter with an admissions officer, too many students don’t think and send out red flags with their words.  Here are just a few examples:

“I didn’t make good grades in middle school, but I’ve been an honor student every year in high school.”  Colleges won’t have middle school grades.  Why undermine the achievement by starting with a negative fact that isn’t relevant?

“I only advanced to the quarter-finals.”  This came from a student describing his experience at a national speech and debate tournament.  ONLY!  “Only” the quarter-finals at a highly competitive event is a BIG deal.  Don’t let disappointment or a fear of appearing immodest lead you to phrase accomplishments as if they are setbacks.

“I am president of the Spanish Club, but we don’t do much.”  A former student revealed this in a mock interview.  The interviewer was looking to start conversation by saying, “I see on your resume you are president of the Spanish Club.  What do you do?”  Not only is this a lesson in “think before you speak,” but it also underscores the importance of knowing the value of everything listed on your resume.

“This year I am president of NHS at my school.  It was an honor to be elected, but some of the people are difficult to work with.”  As part of a greater essay that would explain the challenges of leadership and how this student was able to overcome them, this statement might be acceptable.  However, on its own, it unnecessarily raises questions.  Is this student unable to work with others?  Lacking in leadership skills?  Is there more to the story?

Every applicant has control of the information given to colleges during the admissions process.  Avoid sending red flags for college admission or unnecessarily drawing attention to negatives while in the process of presenting positives.