Faux pas are nearly always cringe-worthy, but, when they’re on your college application, they can also cause delays and even rejection. This year, take heed of the experts’ advice and work smarter, not harder, to avoid the most common application mistakes.
Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Take a break to double check yourself
Just like job applications, the key to success with college applications is in the details; and that’s exactly where most people go wrong. Travis Carter, associate director of admissions at Radford University, identifies “lack of attention to detail” as the fountainhead of most application mistakes.
“Proofreading is a lost art,” he laments, “Students are too quick to hit submit on their application at times when another day of revisions and review can prove beneficial.” He’s seen everything from misspelled words to errant grammar to students who jumbled their own names (ouch!).
Francesca Reed, associate vice president of enrollment management at Marymount University, has similar views. She lists “not checking their spelling and grammar” as the most frequently seen error and her number one complaint when it comes to applications.
Do yourself a favor and take a coffee break before hitting ‘submit’ on your next application. You might come back to catch some (embarrassing) errors.
Beware recycled essays
Let’s be realistic. Most students probably won’t write a fresh essay for every school they apply to. While this won’t cost you points in and of itself, one lazy slip can betray your game if you forget to change the name of the school. “It’s a pretty easy giveaway for us to see how much effort you’re putting into the application,” says Carter.
Do your homework
Schools list their minimum requirements for a reason: for you to read, know, and observe. If the school has a minimum GPA of 3.0, don’t apply if yours falls short. “We can’t admit a student who doesn’t satisfy our minimum requirements,” Carter explains. Take time to educate yourself on the school’s minimum requirements (including GPA and pre-requisite courses).
If you don’t, you might become an offender of Reed’s third top application mistake: “Not reading instructions on what is needed or the process prior to applying.” Sixty seconds of reading can save you time that can be better spent applying to other opportunities that you do qualify for. Either way, it’s almost guaranteed to save your college admissions officer a bit of frustrated hair pulling.
Don’t be shy
Most students treat the optional sections on the application as just that. And that’s unfortunate. “Leaving optional sections blank” is Reed’s second top application mistake. These are opportunities, she explains, “to help the admissions committee to get to know you better.”
She also encourages students to provide as much information upfront as possible. Don’t rush through the application, leaving fields blank. Your complete high school and community college experience and full contact information are good places to start. If the school you’re applying to also requires references, provide those as well. It’s information that the school will need anyways, so being proactive will save time and paperwork all around.
Social security numbers are another optional, but highly recommended piece of data to provide. “If you plan to apply for federal aid using the FAFSA, it is very helpful,” Reed advises, “and will save time later if you fill it out correctly.”
Let yourself shine
“A lot of college essays are a blank slate for you to tell us something about yourself that no one else may know,” says Carter. With admissions officers receiving thousands of applications each year, the college essay, like the optional sections, is a chance to distinguish yourself.
“Be original, by being yourself,” advises Carter. He urges students to “dig deeper than you ever thought you could” and then “dig just a little bit deeper.” Answering questions like “What motivates you?”, “What has impacted your life?”, and “What are your dreams?” will carry more weight with admissions officers than just describing your favorite hobbies.
Reed also promotes student originality. “Don’t just use the same standard lines as your peers,” she says, adding “Just be you.”
She encourages students to play to their strong points. Whether you’re a math whiz or a piano virtuoso who struggles with math, let yourself shine. If you led your student club or worked a job after school, make sure it’s on your application. “All these things are important,” says Reed, “and can help you stand out.” Taking advanced level courses like Honors, AP, College Prep, and Dual Enrollment can also boost your application’s success.
Be the boss
It’s great if your parents want to be involved in your college applications. “In fact,” says Carter, “it’s encouraged.” Just make sure they’re not helping too much.
When parents complete the application or write the essay, it’s easy for the student to get thrown off during interviews. Carter has experienced many an awkward moment because the student could not remember an activity their parents had put on their application or, worse, flat out denied it. “It’s important for the student to lead the charge, not mom or dad,” he concludes. Take the initiative and don’t take the shortcut on your applications and essays. One way or another, it’ll catch up to you.
Olivia Amici is a hustler who has been writing short stories for fun since high school and editing scientific papers since moving to Concepcion, Chile, for a gap year. Before then, she paid her way through community college while working as an event coordinator and a dental assistant. Once she returns to the States, she is excited to complete her degree in biology at University of Florida. In ten years, she would like to be working as a medical research editor and own an African Gray Parrot and a house in San Diego.