The whirlwind of applying to college can be discouraging and intimidating for high school students. When acceptance rates are low and competition is high, it’s hard to know how to stand out from the crowd and secure a spot at your dream school.
Filling out college applications does take hard work—but it doesn’t have to be loaded with stress. When you know what mistakes to avoid, applying to college can be a smooth process that allows students to showcase their accomplishments, personalities and experiences, and win that coveted spot in the freshman class.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 65% of high school graduates from the class of 2013 went to college that fall. These students knew what to do on successful college applications, but perhaps more importantly, they also knew what not to do.
NerdScholar previously asked the experts for college search guidance, and now we’ve asked them what mistakes students should avoid when filling out their college applications.
1. Providing only generic information devoid of personality.
More than anything, an admissions officer wants to get to know a student through a college application. Rather than focusing on achievements that many other applicants may share, such as a high GPA and a position in student government, students should provide more personal information. “The essay is the best way to tell your story. This is where you can be the most memorable and it really is an opportunity to connect your unique attributes and experiences with the vibe of the college or university,” says Courtney Minden, dean of undergraduate admission at Babson College in Massachusetts. “The best way is to simply tell your story in a genuine and direct way, without the padding of grandiose or self-congratulatory language.” The entire application should present the student as a real person, and showcase his or her experiences and opinions.
“It’s always best for the student to be authentic—that’s really the best advice for anyone,” says Daniel Richer, senior associate director of admissions at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. “Each person is unique, and the college application is a place where students can reflect on their accomplishments throughout high school and then share their stories.”
2. Overlooking the school-specific questions and essays.
Many colleges require students to submit application materials through a large centralized platform, such as the Common Application. However, most colleges will also request supplemental essays that are specific to the school, and sometimes students don’t address this area very attentively.
Minden says, “Often, when a student is applying to many schools at once, they may try to recycle some of their essays to other schools to save time. The purpose of the supplement is to answer questions specifically about the school and what you see yourself adding to the community.” Students should avoid submitting “one size fits all” essays, since schools want to know why you are the right candidate for them specifically. For example, rather than writing something vague such as, “I like your school because it’s a close-knit community outside a city, but with a campus and close relationships to professors,” Minden recommends mentioning distinct programs, professors and research opportunities.
Glossing over supplemental essays and short answer questions is “nearly the worst thing you can do, as that’s often weighed heavily by the colleges,” says Julie Walas, undergraduate programs manager at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies in New York. “We want to know why you want to be here and want to feel your passion for our school. Help us out by writing how you’re a great fit for us on the supplements.”
3. Putting off the application process.
Most college applications become available in August prior to fall admission deadlines, but students should start preparing for the process before then. “It’s good advice to at least start thinking about essay topics and who to ask for a recommendation early on,” says Richer. “Senior year is busy for many students and starting the process early can help reduce the amount of stress they feel.” Students should be especially mindful of their recommender’s time, keeping in mind that teachers typically have many other letters to write. Gerri Daniels, director of admissions at Northern Michigan University, says, “Applicants should not wait until the last moment to begin the process and then expect every other step to become others’ emergency.”
In order to accommodate everyone involved in the process and allow extra time in case of any error, students should start and finish their college applications as early as possible. “It is really important to know the school’s deadline and to have everything submitted at least 10 days in advance,” says Walas. “That way the school has enough time to process the application and let you know if anything is missing, still ahead of the deadlines.”
4. Allowing parents or counselors to guide the application process.
Parents and college counselors can be great resources when applying to college, but it’s ultimately the student who decides where he or she wants to spend the next four years. Parents and counselors may urge students to choose certain schools based on recommendation, prestige or personal connection, but “students should take a personal inventory of the things that are most important to them, as this will help determine what schools will be a good fit,” says Richer.
Once a student decides where to apply, it should be the student who takes the initiative in building a relationship with each school. Minden says that “when a student has a question for an admissions officer, it should be they who make the call or write the email.” There are many cases of “well-meaning parents who speak for their children, but hearing directly from a student goes a long way with an admissions officer, and may open the door to a conversation with the person who will be reading their application.”
5. Failing to use all available resources, such as teachers and coaches.
While outside sources should not guide a student’s application process, they can still provide valuable feedback. “Ask questions to everyone. Most people are happy to give their perspective,” Walas says. “School counselors are great resources. English and writing teachers are great proofreaders of college essays. Coaches and bosses may be able to help you practice for a college interview.” These people will typically help where and when they can, as long as students take the initiative and ask. Having multiple people review a student’s application will help ensure that there are no grammatical errors and that all questions are read correctly and answered accurately.
For students with limited guidance at school, Daniels recommends “approaching a teacher whom they feel knows them fairly well.” In addition, “college access organizations and public libraries within the community may provide free services related to the college search and application process.”
6. Not submitting recommended materials.
Most college applications will allow students to submit optional materials, such as research reports or recommendation letters from non-academic sources. Daniels says to “consider the optional items as a way to showcase your achievements, but generally it is not a good idea to provide materials beyond what the college describes in their ‘optional’ list.” Students should be careful not to submit anything unnecessary, or already included in another part of the application. Admissions officers are “receiving lots of applications and supplemental materials, and you do not want to stand out in a negative way for providing items outside the suggested list,” adds Daniels.
One common question is whether or not students should include resumes in their applications. Oftentimes, resume information is already found under the activities section or in the transcript, but if not, then adding a resume can enhance a student’s application. “In addition to the resume, I have seen students submit a short introduction,” says Mary Winsett, admissions officer at Middle Tennessee State University. “They usually address some of their experiences while in school, their interests, and their future goals.”
Submitting suggested materials and completing optional activities demonstrate a student’s strong interest in the school. “Any extras you can do to personalize and detail your application to the school are big hits with admissions committees,” says Walas. “Interview if the opportunity is available. Visit and be sure to sign in when you do, or join the school for an information session at your school or in your hometown.”
Courtney Minden is currently in her third year at Babson College. In July 2014, she was named dean of undergraduate admission, before which she served as the director of admission for two years. Prior to Babson, she served as associate director of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University. She holds a B.A. from Connecticut College and an Ed.M. from the Harvard School of Education.
Julie Walas is the manager of undergraduate programs at the iSchool at Syracuse University. She works to recruit talented and diverse classes of undergraduates to the iSchool and to engage the students in opportunities that enhance their education when they arrive. For the past two summers, she’s also served as the college consultant for Syracuse University’s Summer College Program. On the side, her favorite role is as the Coach to SU’s Mascot Program and Team, Otto the Orange.
Daniel Richer is the senior associate director of admission at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Mary Winsett has worked in the Middle Tennessee State University admissions office for 23 years, where she has enjoyed assisting the students with their questions and listening to their concerns.
Gerri Daniels has been an admission professional for 27 years and has served as the director of admissions at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, for 17 years. She presents frequently at regional and national conferences and has served in leadership roles at the state and national level in several organizations, including the National Association for College Admission Counseling. She earned her B.A. in Speech Communication from Northern Michigan University and her M.A. in Communication from Miami University.
Image of student via Shutterstock.