How to Approach a Gap in College Admissions Applications

it's not hard to get a thick envelope

The college admissions process – identifying appropriate schools for the student, then figuring out how to get there – is tough. If it wasn’t, no one would ever need my help.

Like any other service field, the approaches counselors of all sorts, from school guidance counselors to those in private practice, differ widely. I’d like to compare and contrast an element of my approach with an article by another admissions counselor about gaps in the application. My position is that these gaps simply don’t exist, but first I’d like to lay out the author’s position and her actions with this particular candidate.

In “Applying to college not time for ‘truthiness,’” Joanne Levy-Prewitt looks back on her work with a student who had an application that was very strong in some ways and weak in others. In short, he had great numbers and little to go along with them:

Several years ago, I worked with a young man who had what I call “enormous horsepower.” He was extraordinarily bright and articulate. He had straight A’s, indeed many A+’s in all his classes. With no test prep or tutoring, he had SAT scores close to 800 on every section.

But that’s all he had. He had no extracurricular activities. None. No sports, no music, no volunteering. No school club membership or religious involvement. No scouting or camps. No work experience. He also said he hadn’t read any books beyond what was required for school.

Not every applicant has every peg ready to fit neatly into its proper hole in the application. That’s because people are different. This kid happens to be heavy on the transcript and light on those bizarrely-overemphasized elements like being involved in the Glee Club. Surely he must do something with his time, though.

When I asked him what he did after school, he said that with his father’s permission he gambled online. Apparently, he was quite successful at it, too.

This is an incredible opportunity to expose a unique facet of the candidate in a positive light. Keep reading.

Because he was underage, he was engaging in illegal activities. I told him quite frankly that colleges would likely deny him if he listed “gambling” as his extracurricular activity.

True – even with his father’s permission. Detailing an applicant’s violations of interstate/international commerce regulations is a bad idea. She goes on:

That’s when he told me his plan. Without blinking he said, “I’m going to make up activities.” He said he would invent activities like sports and club involvement that would make him seem like an active member of his school community and be impressive to admissions deans. He had investigated and thought that his odds (remember, he’s a gambler) of getting caught were so slim that it was worth lying. I said all I could about the importance of truth, and, of course, about the consequences, too, but nothing could dissuade him.

High school kids don’t always have the experience, knowledge or good judgment to make this call. That’s why they and their parents use us. This isn’t remotely close to the wackiest stories I’ve heard from students about their plans in the admissions process; it certainly isn’t difficult to deal with. And if his answer was handled properly, the counselor never would’ve heard the student’s suggestion to make up activities.

The counselor told the student’s father, who then insisted that his son would be honest. She didn’t hear from the family again.

He had quite a conundrum: If he were honest and told about his gambling, he’d probably be denied. If he left the activities section blank, he’d be denied. If he lied and was admitted to college, he could risk getting caught and possibly expelled. There was also the chance that he wouldn”t get caught at all, at least not this time.

I don’t know where he applied to college nor do I know where he matriculated. But, if he did lie, I believe that the truth will eventually prevail.

The truth could’ve prevailed about 60 seconds after the student mentioned his skill with gaming.

I agree with several elements of the piece. There’s no sense in lying on college applications. Not only are you potentially setting yourself up for failure, but it’s just unnecessary. And a good admissions counselor knows enough about academics – all disciplines – to turn the most mundane or seemingly awful things into an exposition of a candidate’s skills. It’s simply easier to tell the truth.

Assuming that I got into the “truthiness” conversation with the student – and it never would’ve gotten to that point – I would’ve made it very clear that he could be honest about his curriculum vitae or go elsewhere for admissions consulting. There isn’t another option. I would’ve reiterated that same point to his father. If I have to dissuade actively a client from fabrication, they’ll cease to be a client of mine – end of story. But the problem here isn’t the student’s attitude – it’s the lack of a proper solution.

First, if a counselor is unable to help a student create an application that reflects him, that counselor needs to admit it and, preferably, refer the client to a colleague who can give appropriate aid. Other professions do it all the time. Would you want a lawyer to take your case if he didn’t understand your situation or was uncomfortable with its details? I refer clients to other professionals because sometimes they can do a better job. Sometimes I get referrals. We do it to maximize the value of the different services we provide.

Second, there isn’t a high school kid in the United States who doesn’t do anything after school. This kid’s primary interest is in gaming, but it’s certainly not what he does from 3pm until he sleeps. No one sits around doing nothing. If he watches a lot of television, what does he watch and why? If he spends hours and hours on the internet, what sites does he go to? What does he read online? Starting with these basic questions can bring to light several hidden interests that a skilled counselor can highlight. So, if the counselor wasn’t comfortable with the client’s gaming interest, she could’ve bypassed it instantly and found something else [or, more likely, a dozen other things].

Third, this was a missed opportunity to make the student look great. Stigmas with gambling aside, they’re number games. Hard, stone-cold statistical analysis and probability. Even the famed “look into their eyes” method in poker is really just gaining physical information and applying it using Bayes’ Theorem. It’s a rare thing to a) find anything in pop culture so dependent on stats/probability and b) find a high school kid who not only loves it, but is also good at it. This particular student had probably never thought about applying those skills in academics; he needed guidance and didn’t get it.

The counselor who authored this article saw a degenerate gambler on his way to a life of cheating. I saw a kid who has mastered concepts well beyond his years. If the kid had heard my take on his interests, I’m certain that he never would’ve felt the need to lie on his application. The kid wasn’t sinister, he was unnecessarily desperate and didn’t have any reason to alleviate those feelings.

An admissions consultant needs to have a solid handle on all elements of post-secondary study. That means you have to know about every discipline in the American university. If you don’t, you miss out on helping kids or you steer them a sub-optimal direction.

I’m not suggesting that all independent counselors be admissions superheroes, though. We specialize and network so we don’t have to know everything.

Counselors aren’t spin doctors, either. They do, however, need to recognize the academic relevance in all of a student’s actions, interests or accomplishments and expose that in an application. That’s the best way to be honest with students and the colleges to which they’re applying.

If anyone has any questions about the college admissions process – or if you’re another counselor who’s stuck regarding a particular client – just send me an e-mail at

One Response to “How to Approach a Gap in College Admissions Applications”

  1. Cindy says:

    What an interesting kid!

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