The 6 Most Common College Application Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

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Updated on August 23, 2023
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Applying for colleges can be an overwhelming process for many students. With so much paperwork and deadlines to keep track of, it's normal for applications to be less than perfect.

We spoke with two college admissions experts to identify the most common mistakes students make on their college applications. Getting accepted on merit and work ethic alone can be difficult enough — don't let one of these six errors disqualify your application.

1. Skimping on Details

Filling out college applications is a lot of work, especially if you plan to apply to many schools. It can be easy for details to slip through the cracks and tempting to keep your application simple. But colleges need a full picture of who you are and evidence that you're serious about attending their school.

For example, when listing activities, you should also detail how you participated. It's pretty easy in high school to "join" a club but just attend the first and last meeting.

Listing things you were involved in will mean more to colleges if you detail the impact you made and how you participated. Make sure those details are accurate, too.

"Students go to school, do homework, study, eat dinner, and sleep," said Laurie Kopp Weingarten, certified educational planner and president of One-Stop College Counseling. "If you claim to have 10 hours per day of activities after school, it's not believable!"

Before you turn in your application, review it several times before submitting it. Many students accidentally use incorrect grammar or leave in the name of a different school, according to admissions experts.

2. Missing Deadlines

This may seem obvious, but missing college application deadlines is another common application mishap. The official application deadline is one of many dates students must keep track of. You'll need to meet deadlines to collect specific application materials in time, like transcripts, recommendation letters, and test scores.

Students are responsible for researching specific program dates as well.

"For example, students submitting portfolios, applying to honors colleges, or pursuing BFA programs have much earlier deadlines," said Rachel Coleman, independent education consultant and co-founder of College Essay Editor.

3. Dishonest or Negative Character

A college will deny you admittance if your application or history indicates negative character traits.

"Colleges are looking to admit students with strong character," explained Weingarten. "When reviewing an application, they don't want to see arrogance, cheating, or somebody who is not a team player. If those unappealing qualities come through in an application, the student is not going to be admitted."

This kind of mistake can manifest in your essay or written responses as well as your school record. Coleman listed things like a history of violence, plagiarism, dislike of learning, and sense of entitlement as common disqualifiers.

In your essays, make sure you aren't putting others down to build yourself up.

"We've explained to many students why the following sentence doesn't go over well: 'While my friends partied at the beach all summer, I was productive, working hard at my Carvel job,'" said Weingarten.

4. Lack of Effort

It will be clear to admissions counselors if you don't put effort into your college application. Your application should demonstrate a passion for your goals and the school you're applying to.

Admissions can tell if you put little effort into an application, miss sections, fail to edit your essay, and generally do the bare minimum to apply. For example, essay responses that don't answer the prompt or are recycled from other applications.

Be sure to submit every application material a school asks for. These materials may include recommendation letters, official transcripts, and SAT or ACT scores.

"Students don't always realize that clicking 'submit' on the Common App doesn't mean they're done!" warned Coleman.

5. Not Showing Specific Interest

Colleges want to admit students who are passionate about attending and have demonstrated that interest. Naming the wrong institution in the essay is a common mistake.

"Admissions officers have shared with us how incredibly often this happens," said Weingarten. "They will be reading a wonderful essay about why the student wants to attend Dartmouth College, and then the ending will enthusiastically declare, 'And that's why the University of Pennsylvania would be the ideal place for me to attend.'"

Similarly, essays that are intentionally vague so that they can be used for multiple applications are an obvious red flag.

"Rejected applications tend to have very general essays, i.e., essays not tailored to the specific qualities of an individual school," said Coleman.

6. Avoiding the Optional Essay

Even if a college application essay says it's optional, it's not really optional. Skipping the essay can often mean you'll be denied acceptance.

According to Coleman, this is a common ploy by colleges and universities to ascertain students' interest in the school. "[Making an essay optional] is a bit of a trick colleges play to see if the student is a hard worker, or actually wants to attend the school," she said.

If students do the bare minimum on their applications, colleges will assume they'll do the bare minimum in school.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Laurie Kopp Weingarten

Laurie Kopp Weingarten

Laurie Kopp Weingarten is a certified educational planner and president of One-Stop College Counseling. She graduated with a BSE from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and received her MBA from Harvard Business School. Laurie guides students in the eighth through 12th grade through each stage of the college admissions process, covering high school course selection, standardized tests, extracurricular activities enhancement, volunteer work, summer jobs and internships, essay topic selection, resume guidance, early decision and early action strategies, and interview prep. She is passionate about helping students reach their full potential. Laurie is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and a member of HECA, NACAC, NJACAC, and PACAC. She is also a proud member of the Character Collaborative.

Portrait of Rachel Coleman

Rachel Coleman

Rachel Coleman has worked as an independent education consultant for seven-plus years in the college admissions counseling field, helping students navigate the college application and financial aid processes. She is also the co-founder of College Essay Editor, where she loves working with college applicants not only on their applications but also on becoming better writers for life. Rachel received her BA in comparative literature from Stanford University and her college counseling certificate from UCLA. She is a member of the Higher Education Consultants Association.

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