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Extra Credit

20 Mistakes Students Make When Applying to College

Admissions officers read a lot of applications. Here’s how not to stand out in the wrong way

Students applying to college often want to know the secret to getting in. Spoiler alert: There isn’t one. But there are a lot of very common mistakes that could make it harder on yourself.

Here are 20 gaffes admissions officers see again and again. Make sure they don’t see them from you!

  1. Not sharing enough about your circumstances, even if—especially if—they’re difficult. Context matters.
  2. Not reading the instructions. They’re included for a reason.
  3. Not following the instructions. Reading them doesn’t matter if you don’t do what they say.
  4. Applying only to colleges where your friends are applying. Trust us, you’ll make new friends at college. (And your old crew is always just a text away.)
  5. Not answering your phone. Believe it or not, sometimes an admissions office calls! So set up your voicemail at least, and don’t be freaked out if you get a call from an unknown number.
  6. Putting down another school’s name on an application or scholarship essay. Accuracy matters, so proofread, proofread, proofread!
  7. Not providing enough explanation about low grades, failure to complete requirements, or other weaknesses in your transcript. We’re all human—admissions officers included—and humans are imperfect. Tell your story without blaming someone else. Owning up to mistakes is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  8. Not visiting the school (if you’re able to visit it). Campus visits can be a burden (especially on schedules and budgets) and aren’t always possible. So if it doesn’t seem possible you can see a place IRL, give the admissions office a call so they know who you are.
  9. Letting mom or dad run the process. Admissions officers love their parents too and totally appreciate it when they lend a hand, but they’re not considering your parents. They are considering you. Take the lead in planning your future.
  10. Applying too late. Never lose sight of deadlines. That’s good advice for life generally, not just applying to colleges.
a frustrated student sitting at a desk covering her eyes

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  1. Not checking your email. Look, admissions officers would love slide into your DMs or send you snaps or NikNaKs or whatever the hot social media is right now. But you probably wouldn’t actually want them to do that. So get an email address (preferably something more professional than [email protected]) and check it.
  2. Using different names on different forms. Your birth certificate says your name is John, your friends call you Jack, your real friends call you Scottie, and your grandpa calls you Jimmy for some reason. OK. But admissions officers need to have one name for you on every form. (You should go with the one you used when registering for the SAT.) Otherwise, the computers get really confused.
  3. Not saying “No,” or even better, “No, thank you” when you not interested. Admissions officers know they send you a lot of mail and email. So if you’re really not interested in hearing from a school or if you were accepted but don’t plan on attending, let them know. They might be sad, but it lets them focus on people who are interested. 
  4. Applying to be a “Sychology major” out of “highschool.” Everyone makes spelling mistakes. Just don’t make them on your application. (See #6)
  5. Waiting too long to file the FAFSA or not filing it at all. The FAFSA isn’t fun, but it’s really important. You could miss out on a lot of money if you don’t fill it out.
  6. Not asking questions when you’re confused or frustrated. Answering questions is part of an admissions officer’s job. And they enjoy it. They are there to help you apply to college. You are not bothering them. Just don’t have your mom call. (See #9)
  7. Applying to a school that doesn’t have the major you’re interested in. DePaul is awesome, but not if you want to be an electrical engineer. MIT is awesome too, but not if you want to major in drama. Choose the school that’s right for you—and your future.
  8. Ignoring the cost of college. Choosing the right college is not just about finding the right academic and social fit for you; it’s about finding the right financial fit, too.  
  9. Pretending to be who you think colleges want you to be. Being yourself is hard enough. Just do that and you’ll stand out.
  10. Picking a college based on rankings. Just … No.

If you follow all 20 rules, does that mean you will get into your top choice?

Well, no, of course not. So here’s Mistake 21: Obsessing over any one school. Apply to multiple schools that are a good fit for you and be open to the exciting opportunities that await you in college.