Why Do Colleges Ask if You've Applied Before?

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Question: I am an international applicant. I applied to a few US liberal arts colleges last year but they either wait-listed me or rejected me. I have to decided to reapply this year, but the Common App asks if I've applied to that school before. Why do they want this information? Will they compare my old application with my new one? I would like to change some things on my application, but don't want to hurt my chances if colleges look for inconsistencies.

While policies do vary, colleges typically save applications for at least a couple years, and when a student has applied in the past, most admission officers will revisit the old application or at least parts of it. The college officials will usually compare the two applications to see if any issues that concerned them the first time around have been resolved and also to ascertain whether information on the second application seems to conflict with earlier data.

Some inconsistencies are to be expected. Teenagers often change their choice of major or career goals as they mature. And they may indicate that they are applying for financial aid one year and then NOT applying the next year (or vice-versa) as their family circumstances fluctuate. They will write brand-new essays and new responses to short-answer questions.

But obviously, there is some information that should not change and will raise flags if it does. For instance, if you confessed to a disciplinary violation the first time around but don't mention it the next time, the inconsistency will, of course, be questioned. If you said in your initial application that you were the treasurer of the student government but then you subsequently claim that you were president, this could work against you, too. So if you spot any potential “flags" in your new applications that warrant an explanation, be sure to include one (e.g., “Last year I said I was student government treasurer, but the president transferred to a new school in February so I took over her duties after she left, which was also after my applications were submitted.") Thus, as you start the application process again, make sure that your new responses reflect any change and growth that you've experienced since high school but avoid any hint of dishonesty.

Also keep in mind that if you were wait-listed or rejected in the past, your odds of acceptance will be very steep. You would be wise to only reapply to one top-choice college and then expand your list to include new options, including those places where your GPA and test scores put you above the medians. And if you are applying for financial aid, aim for colleges where you are well above the medians because the bar will be set extra-high for you.

Finally, if any of your favorite colleges offer a binding “Early Decision" plan (and if you think that your grades and test scores make you a reasonable applicant there) then strongly consider an ED application. While ED almost always offers an acceptance odds boost, this is especially true for international students. Admission officials tend to limit the number of candidates selected from each country outside the US, especially when an applicant is seeking financial aid, so it's wise to get your bid in ahead of the Regular Decision crowd. And if you are seeking aid, you can turn down a “binding" Early acceptance without penalty if you feel that a financial aid offer isn't adequate.

Bottom Line: “The Dean" recommends that you revise your college list as you enter the admissions maze yet again ... and you can revise your actual applications, too, if you're reapplying to any places on last year's roster. If you do reapply to colleges that already said no, feel free to supply updated information to try to get better news, but don't reinvent yourself entirely!


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