My friend told me that I can exaggerate a little on my college applications and my resume to make my extracurriculars and part-time jobs sound better. How much exaggeration is normal and how much will get me in trouble? Isn't true that everybody stretches the truth when applying?

Answers

Christine VanDonge, Senior Research Analyst

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I always told my students "make your bright areas shine bright", so while I do not think you should exaggerate I think you should take some time with your application/resume and a school counselor and talk about your experiences. This will allow you to identify which experiences are actually worth including on your application/resume and ways they connect to the school your are applying to (or the major you want to select). As Seth mentioned, think about what you have taken away from your extracurricular activities and/or jobs. Think about how these experiences have motivated you to select your college/career path, and find ways to bring those pieces of information into your application/resume. Again, this is where a school counselor might really come in handy!

Seth Czarnecki, Teacher, College Essay Tutor

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I'm not sure exaggerating your experiences is a wise move. It seems to me that exaggerating the facts is a slippery slope toward lying. Also, I think you should value your experiences as they existed and not shape them in a way you think an admissions officer would approve of. What I would recommend to you is looking at what you actually accomplished and seek to describe those accomplishments in a way that speaks to the value you see in them. For example, let's say you worked part-time at the customer service desk at your local supermarket. You can discuss the interaction with a variety of people from different backgrounds. You can describe the struggles of negotiating between the different management styles of your superiors. You can speak to how working in the private sector in addition to your school work helped to cultivate a work ethic. Ultimately, you want to be accepted for what you've done. Value your experiences and speak to what you've taken away from them.

Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author

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In tennis they call this putting the spin on your ball. I guess you're asking how much spin can you apply to your extracurriculars and experiences before your ball goes out of bounds.

My answer is your embellishments or spin have to be grounded in truth and authenticity. If you were called in for a college interview and questioned in depth about what you wrote on your application would you pass the truth test? Or would you start to stutter and find yourself unable to support that more grandiose representation because once there were queries about the details, you couldn't back up your statements. Here are two hacknayed sayings to live by. First, the devil is in the details. And second, better safe that sorry.

That said, I think what you can do is FRAME your stories and experiences in ways you may not have thought of. Do not underestimate the importance of holding a minimum wage job and scooping ice cream at the local sweet shop, or hauling golf bags for pampered members of a country club. These kinds of experiences do add value and substance to your college candidacy. Admissions officers have great respect for these types of jobs. They show you understand the role of being an employee, that you can handle yourself with customers, and showcase other characteristics like commitment, maturity and responsibility. Sound unimportant? Hardly - these are skills that easily transfer to success in college and life. As Seth Czarnecki (another contributor here) suggested, there are ways to represent your work experiences beyond just being descriptive. If you are a food server of some kind, perhaps you can play up what you have learned about serving different types of populations of customers, from little kids, to teens, to even elderly customers. This can showcase a sensitivity to others and awareness of a range of customer expectations. Of course, holding a part time job, and doing well in school is in and of itself admirable. It's possible you did not think of yourself and your college application in this way. But in a world where most students have dabbled in community service (because it's often required by the school), or started a charity of some sort (with Mom and Dad's help), holding down a good old fashioned job is admirable.

One important way to add safe spin, or frame your college responses, is to create an accomplishment statement in describing what you did. For example, if since you began working at the ice cream parlor, sales have gone up, even just by flavor or type, you might say, "Working at blankety blank I have helped sales of ice cream cones increase by approximately blank." Or perhaps you have suggested a better way to manage inventory to your bosses or business owners. This too can be massaged into an accomplishment statement. For community service you might also be able to make an accomplishment statement like, "Since tutoring Joey and Alex, these two students now have solid C's in algebra whereas before they had D's and were at risk of failing." The idea is to suggest you have somehow had an impact, however small. As for sports, maybe all you did is just make the team - there is something humble and refreshing in saying that, rather than trying to stretch the truth.

Most importantly, how far you go in expanding your job title, position, or role you played in any job or extracurricular should be subject to good judgement. Not just yours, but your guidance counselors or another adult. Enlist a second pair off eyes on how you have portrayed yourself on the college application. Giving yourself a nice sounding job title when your employer simply left it blank, or puffing up your role is perfectly fine as long as your ball stays within bounds.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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My students have a hard time talking up their talents and accomplishments. Consider making a list of all of the things you have done in the past years of high school and choosing two or three to focus on in your essays. There is a difference between making the case for yourself and exaggerating. And admissions folks can sniff out that padding right away, lessening your chances instead of increasing them! No one should stretch the truth. If you have to stretch the truth to be at a school, perhaps that school is not the best fit for you. Play up your strengths. And remember things that show leadership and reliability are great to show off.

David H. Nguyen, Education Consultant, College Lecturer, PhD

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The term that describes exaggeration on resumes is called embellishment. Exaggeration is not an accurate description of embellishment, though people do exaggerate some times. The purpose of embellishment is to clearly state the skills and assignments that you have gained from a certain job or activity. I wrote an article on the art of writing resumes, but an excerpt is pasted here to give you an example of the usefulness of embellishment.

“Embellishment"

"The joke is that a plumber is not just a plumber, but is a “sanitation engineer.” In reality, sanitation engineers are people who build and maintain municipal sewage treatment systems – not to belittle the difficult work of plumbing, though. In the context of resumes, embellishment means adding significance to something that seems insignificant – though sometimes people think that embellishment gives them the right to lie! For example, a job description of a waiter might start out as, “I carried dishes from the kitchen to the tables.” But after embellishment, it becomes so much more relevant regarding what skills were obtained from waiting on tables: “Transported multiple entrees at once from kitchen to dining area. Comfortable navigating fast-paced dining environment. Ensured customer satisfaction throughout dining experience, from food orders to checkout.”

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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Remember that admissions officers have read hundreds, if not thousands, of applications throughout their careers. They know what "sounds right" and what seems like an exaggeration. Chances are that your exaggeration won't be the deciding factor to get you into a school. I recommend that you own and honor the experiences that you have had exactly as you had them. An authentic voice will get the attention of admissions more than the canned application packages that pass through the office.

Maryann Aita, Writer and Individualized Education Specialist

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As Seth and Christine pointed out, exaggerating is not a great idea on applications, but highlighting your strengths is. Think about what you would say if someone asked you a question about something you said on an application. You wouldn't, for instance, want to say that you were the captain of the tennis team if you weren't the captain, but you could explain that many of your peers on the team looked to you for guidance (if that's true). Just be sure you have an example to back everything up (for example: the captain was absent one practice and you filled in).

You want to consider how to frame your extracurriculars and part-time jobs, especially when tailoring applications to schools or jobs. You will definitely want to make your applications as specific to each school as you can (although this isn't always possible).

When I say that you should frame your experiences, I mean to think about what parts of you that you most want to present and figure out how to demonstrate that in your application. Ask yourself: how did each of these things lead me to develop the goals I have now?

For college apps, you'll probably want to emphasize things like leadership, academic skills, achievements, and your career interests. Achievements don't always have to be something you got an award for. If you were on the school newspaper and wrote a story for every issue, that's certainly an accomplishment you can highlight. If you got a raise at a job or your boss gave you more hours because you were doing well, you can point that out, too.

You don't want to put everything you ever did on there - saying you did Model UN for two months is probably not helpful, but if you tried Model UN and realized that you like the theatrical part of it so you started doing theater, then you can frame things that way. Think about your goals. And emphasize, but avoid exaggerating.

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