Written by Chris Hernandez
College application season is no joke - especially seeing as seniors have so much on their plates already. Between juggling school, extracurriculars, and even part-time jobs, adding another thing to the plate is the last thing students want to do.
However, think of applying to colleges as ordering dessert. Getting in will be eating the dessert, but you must order the right one to fully enjoy it.
In this busy time of your life, it is important to realize that one small misstep could very well result in a rejection letter. Your admission will depend on a lot of factors, but there are still mistakes you could make right before crossing the finish line, and we want to help you avoid that.
After going through the process ourselves and working in the industry for half a decade, we have come up with a list of avoidable, common mistakes students make in the last stretch of the race. Keep reading to make sure you don’t make any of these mistakes!
1. Not researching early enough
The college research process realistically begins your first year of high school. As a freshman, you may not know exactly where you want to attend, but we still recommend looking up admission requirements for some of your top picks.
It’s important to set goals early in high school, as the courses you take and the grades you receive play significant roles in your application. If your grades or courseload do not meet the school’s standard, you will likely be rejected early in the process.
Start researching early and setting goals for the future to ensure you don’t close any doors or miss out on opportunities because you were unaware of what was required.
2. Being a small fish in a big pond
Getting admitted to a competitive college is, as the name implies, tough. Top schools only admit outstanding students with interesting applications, so a common high school experience is not enough.
Throughout your high-school career, remember to sign up for activities and join groups that will expand your experience and make your application stand out from the rest. College camps, internships, sports, volunteering, and starting your own non-profit, club, or businessare all activities that can give your application that extra boost it needs to stand out, as long as it helps tell a story and give background on who you are. Not only will these experiences add depth to your college apps, but they can also become content for your college essay.
3. Aiming too low on test scores
Use the average test scores of students admitted to your college of choice as a baseline for what you should be scoring. At a minimum, your test scores should match the average of those who have already been accepted, but if your application lacks in any other areas, you will have to compensate for that somewhere else, i.e. test scores.
For example, the average SAT test scores for Columbia University’s current student body range between 1450 to 1580, so you should aim to score at least 1450 if you wish to attend.
That being said, test scores are not the only factor colleges take into consideration while reviewing your application. Especially as more schools become “test optional,” you need to make sure your application compensates for that.
Even at “test optional” schools, scores are still necessary to determine eligibility for scholarships, competitive programs, and honors college placement, so you do need to take that into consideration.
4. Having a lower GPA
College admissions officers read hundreds of applications per day. They use your test scores as well as your grade point average to gauge your ability to keep up with their course load and determine your rate of success at their school.
Admission officers do a little bit of digging when it comes to grades in high school. You may have a perfect GPA because you’ve been an honor roll student throughout high school, but if they see you took mostly easier classes, the admissions officers will take note of that. They also take the difficulty of the course into consideration when reviewing grades.
5. Choosing the wrong classes
Admissions officers like to see that you have challenged yourself in high school; depending on the type of school you are applying to, you may be required to take higher level courses- such as AP. IB, or dual enrollment- to demonstrate that you are able to keep up with more advanced learning.
Colleges understand that every high school has different opportunities, and take that into account. If your school doesn’t offer AP, you won’t be penalized for not taking those courses, as it is out of your control. Still, you should try to take the highest level of courses available to you, as long as you are sure you can handle it.
Different majors have different course requirements, so make sure to have a somewhat clear idea of what it is you want to pursue so you can take classes that match that and help you prepare for the courses you will take in college.
For example, if you are planning to major in engineering, taking an AP art class may not really help your application all that much, even if you receive an A in the course. Colleges want to see expertise in coursework related to your chosen area of concentration.
6. Lack of extracurriculars
Extracurriculars are tricky because they can be a double-sided sword. The most common mistake students make is that they spend too much time focusing on academics or their social lives and never get involved in extracurriculars. The second most common problem is that students participate in unrelated activities, which end up making the student look like he is just doing it for brownie points.
Colleges look for well-rounded students with a wide range of experiences. One of your supplemental essays may just be how you are an asset to the school, in terms of your experiences.
Participating in extracurriculars will challenge you, expand your horizons, build up your socialization skills, and expand your network, which comes in handy later down the line.
Extracurriculars aren’t just important for your application, they also come in handy when you’re writing your resume or applying for scholarships. You may even find yourself writing an essay about an experience you had with an extracurricular activity.
Keep in mind, as with GPA, colleges like to see that you are reliable. Sticking with your commitment will do more than just joining every single club and being a non-participating member. Instead of doing that, pick a couple of activities and stay involved in them throughout your four years. It also helps to take on leadership roles in those i.e. club president.
7. Having an unoriginal essay
This is a big part of your application. It is one of your only chances to present yourself beyond a statistic. The essay is virtually the only place on the application that doesn’t deal with your academic standing, but rather who you are as a person.
That being said, having a boring and unoriginal essay will make you look like a boring and unoriginal candidate, which may result in a rejection letter.
Choose your essay topic wisely, and tell your story in an impactful way that will ensure your application does not blend in with the rest.
We have dedicated an entire blog on how to write a meaningful essay, as it is far too important to just summarize. It is available here.
If you still need more help with this part of your application, reach out to us! Our college consultants will be more than happy to work on your personal essay one on one with you until it is perfect.
8. Generic letters of recommendation
Many students make the mistake of waiting until senior year to start thinking about and asking for recommendation letters.
As with any other relationship, it can take years to develop a meaningful relationship with a faculty member. Because of this, we recommend students start identifying 2-3 teachers or administrators they could put on their list of potential recommenders as early as 10th grade.
When you are making the list, think back to teachers that complimented your work or work ethic, or have seen you grow and improve over the years.
Ask yourself the following questions:
You don’t want to wait until your senior year to ask for recommendations. Apart from putting your recommender on a shorter deadline, that person may already be writing letters for others who have asked before you and may not have time to complete one for you. Some teachers even limit the number of letters they are willing to write, so remember to ask early.
When you’re asking for a letter of recommendation, remember it is a favor, so you have to be nice about it. Before asking for the letter, include context and remind your recommender of a memory you have together to try to jog their memory and convince them to write a personalized letter for you.
9. Thinking “one-size fits all”
You do not want to take the cookie-cutter approach when answering prompts like “why this college.” Not only is it lazy, but if you can submit the same essay and just switch the names for each school, chances are you are not really writing a memorable essay.
Remember to do or use your research to distinguish schools from one another.
Admissions officers want to see that you are interested in their school, so having a broad essay that applies to any university will make them less interested in you.
10. Only applying to reach schools
You may have grown up being told to dream big, but when it comes to applications, you need to be pragmatic. Applying to reach schools is definitely encouraged, as you may get in even if you are not the typical student accepted, but putting all your eggs in the same basket may leave you with nothing but disappointment.
11. Forgetting to submit any part of your application
The best way to avoid this is to keep a calendar with important dates.
As we mentioned earlier, more schools are becoming “test-optional” and as a result, there have been many changes in the admissions process. Even though test scores are not required to grant you admittance to the school, they still may be necessary to place you in a competitive program or make you eligible for scholarships.
We recommend reading the college admissions guidelines carefully and repeatedly, to ensure you know what is required and are able to submit every piece necessary.
Even if the school is test-optional, you may still want to submit your scores if they are good. This could potentially increase your odds of getting accepted; you worked hard for your score, why wouldn’t you show it off?
In regards to your transcripts, your high-school counselor will have specific instructions on how to send them, as it varies from school to school.
12. Forgetting to apply for scholarships or FAFSA
For many, getting accepted is only half the battle. The other half lies in figuring out how to finance the next two to eight years of your education, which can add up quickly between tuition, books, housing, and food.
Scholarships and financial aid can bring down the cost of college dramatically, or even cover it entirely.
Regardless of your family’s financial situation, every student should fill out the FAFSA application. You may be pleasantly surprised to find out that you qualify for financial assistance at this time of your life, whether it be through grants, loans, or work-study programs.
For more information on scholarships, read our blog post here.
13. Inappropriate social media content
It may be hard to believe that in the ten minutes an admissions officer spends looking over your application, they sift through your online profiles, but it is a possibility.
Not all colleges do this, but those that do take the time do it as a tie-breaker between you and another applicant. This means you’ve made it very far in the process, and you don’t want to let your social profiles ruin your opportunities.
Avoid posting about illegal activity- such as underage drinking, vandalism, etc.- hate speech, or just about anything inappropriate that will negatively impact how they view you as a person.
Even after getting accepted, you have to stay on your best behavior. Colleges require students to stick to a code of conduct, and if your social media profiles show you breaking the rules, you may be penalized from it.
14. Too much parent involvement
We talked about this in our blog post about how to write your essay, but it applies to the entire application as well. College admissions officers know the difference between a high school student’s work and an adult’s work, and having your parents help you with this may not be the best thing for you, even if you think it’ll help you to sound more mature.
15. Lying or exaggerating on your application
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it is on here for a reason- some students go to great lengths to attend their dream college.
Don’t submit false information on your college application. Lying on your application will get you nowhere, either quickly or in the long run. 4 out of 5 times, the admissions officer reviewing your application will see through your lies, granting you an immediate rejection.
Even if it is a small fib that doesn’t really change much, such as changing a B+ to an A on a transcript, it does not reflect well on you. In the rare event that you do get away with a lie or embellishment, you will probably end up paying for it later. You may get accepted to a school you are not really able to perform well in or even keep up with for the matter, which will only end up making life more stressful for you.
Lying or cheating your way through the admissions process can also have legal repercussions. If you haven’t heard about what happened to Lori Loughlin and her daughters, you may want to check out their story before lying on your application.
This will also seem obvious by the title, but admissions officers literally read applications for a living, so it is easy for them to see through the fluff. Exaggerating your involvement in a particular activity may do you more harm than good and result in a rejection letter.
When it comes to college applications, honesty is really the best policy.