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Avoid these big college application mistakes

US News and World Report

Applying to college can be a stressful process, but being aware of pitfalls to avoid can help ease the burden for students.

What are some mistakes that drive college admissions staffers crazy – and sometimes send an application to the rejection pile? Here's what admissions pros from around the country say they prefer applicants refrain from doing.

Don't Forget to Read Directions

Experts say students should pay close attention to what schools are asking for on the application. Simply put, read and heed directions.

"In some instances, students aren't filling out all the data on the application. They're leaving blanks, so they're not necessarily answering all the questions," says Mike Perry, executive director of admission at Florida Institute of Technology.

Those blanks make for an incomplete application, Perry says, leaving colleges with only a partial picture of the applicant. He also urges students to fill out information that may be listed as optional because if a college asks for that information, it's considered helpful.

"Most colleges and universities put it on there because they want the information to help them make an informed decision. It's important to pay attention to detail and fill out all the stuff that's being requested from the college or university," Perry says.

Don't Let Parents Take the Lead

Admissions officials say parents should be actively engaged in the college application process, but that comes with limits. Parents shouldn't be filling out the application, writing the student's essay or taking control of communication with school officials.

"I think being an advocate for the student is the right role for the parent to play," says Sarah Richardson, assistant vice provost for enrollment management and director of admissions and scholarships at Creighton University in Nebraska.

She suggests parents provide guidance and support, help students keep track of application deadlines and look for scholarships. Parents may want to set a time each week to check in with their child on applications so they aren't constantly checking in, says Carlos Jiménez, CEO of nonprofit admissions consulting firm Peak Education.

And while parental advocacy is beneficial, schools also want to see students campaign for themselves.

"It's the student's process to own and the parents' process to support," Jiménez says.

Don't Turn in a Lengthy Resume

Not all colleges require students to submit a resume, but some do. Others make it optional. The Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York, for example, requires students to submit a resume that doesn't exceed two pages.

This general rule even rings true for professionals, who are also typically advised to keep a resume to two pages or less.

"Respectfully, a 17-year-old student does not need a three-page resume," Leigh Weisenburger, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid at Bates College in Maine, wrote in an email.

She adds that while some counselors may encourage students to write a resume as an organizational step, "admission officers first need and want students to fill out the college application correctly and completely."

Regardless of the extracurricular activities a student racked up in high school, experts advise applicants to keep their resume to one page.

"As we're processing all of these applications, I am reminded how far ahead the students are who simply give us what we ask for – nothing less and definitely nothing more," Thyra Briggs, vice president for admission and financial aid at Harvey Mudd College in California, wrote in an email.

Don't Submit Applications or Essays Without Proofreading

Spellcheck can be a valuable tool, but it's no substitute for thoroughly proofreading application materials.

"We still see far too many applications where the student has not necessarily taken the time to do a sufficient job of proofreading and sort of relied upon spellcheck," says Walter Caffey, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and student aid at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

Students should proofread application materials and apply the same rigor as they would to academic work.

It's good to seek outside help for proofreading, but there's a balance to strike, especially when it comes to proofreading essays, says Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education.

"Students should not have their parents or teachers do line-by-line edits," Huguet wrote in an email. "Admissions officers can spot an overly polished student from a mile away."

Additionally, edits shouldn't strip the application or essays of the student's natural and authentic voice, experts say.

"Applicants who look packaged usually do not make it into the top schools," Huguet says. "Instead, students can have a friend, or a tutor or counselor with extensive writing experience working on the college essay, review their essays for a more balanced and genuine perspective."

Don't Wait Until the Last Minute to Apply

If she could do the college application process over again, Siya Randhawa says she would start on certain tasks earlier. A rising sophomore at University of California, San Diego, Randhawa applied to about 25 schools and recalls the stress of waiting until the last minute to complete her essays.

Between standard Common Application essays and supplemental essays, she estimates that she wrote about 70 essays up against application deadlines.

"That not only causes a lot of stress, but in my own experience, I wasn’t able to fully reach my essay potential and craft an essay that was thoughtful," she says.

Students should also know the deadlines for various admissions plans, such as early action, early decision and regular decision. Randhawa suggests creating a timeline early in the process and sticking to it. That allows for time to complete tasks that might be more difficult.

“I thought the essays would be easy to write, but it takes a lot more thought," she says. "Those took me hours and hours."

Don't Reuse Essays

Because she waited until the last minute to complete many of her essays, Randhawa says one major mistake she made was using identical language in essays rather than tailoring her answers for each particular school.

“With some of the supplemental essays, I reused them way too much to the point where I wasn’t really answering the question," she says. "I was just doing it because I didn’t have time to write one that reflects the prompt and what I’m actually thinking of saying."

Many colleges include a supplemental essay question that asks why a student wants to attend that school. This is often one of the most fumbled questions in applications because students don't take the time to customize it to speak directly about that school, says Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, an admissions consulting firm that coaches students on completing college essays.

"So universities are wondering, ‘If I accept this student, is he or she going to come?" Koh says. "If it’s a copy-and-paste thing that could literally apply to 50 other universities, your chances are not that great."

Students should start the process early and conduct thorough research on each college, Huguet says, adding this is not an area where students can afford to take shortcuts.

"Discuss your experiences visiting classes, the campus atmosphere, the clubs you aspire to join and other pertinent aspects that illustrate your genuine interest in and understanding of the institution," he says.

Don't Give Cookie-Cutter Application Materials

A seasoned college admissions official will have read thousands of essays and can tell when a student is using a canned topic or generic language.

"The No. 1 most important concept in admissions is differentiation," Koh says. "By being unoriginal, that really does hinder you."

Much of his work involves helping students identify their unique characteristics and showcasing them in the essay and other parts of the application, Koh says.

That self-reflection can help students present themselves more fully and authentically to colleges.

"When students take the time to articulate some self-reflection, which can highlight growth and maturity, I'm assuming most colleges find that appealing," Caffey says. "And it helps to paint a more accurate picture of what that student's individual journey has been."

Don't Overdo Extracurricular Activities to Impress Colleges

College admissions officials like to see engaged students, but that doesn't mean applicants should join clubs just to pad their high school resumes.

Briggs notes that recent efforts in the admissions world have encouraged professionals to focus less "on students racking up accomplishments, activities or AP classes and more on how they impact their community and their own mental wellness."

Students also shouldn't exaggerate their activities or misrepresent themselves.

"If something is discovered that the student, or whoever submitted the application, is purposely falsifying that information, that absolutely puts an application on the bottom of the pile or may instantly render a denied admission decision," Perry says.

The "Varsity Blues" admissions scandal of 2019 represented the extreme end of such behavior with college consultants, coaches, parents and students conspiring to cheat and lie about student activities to enhance the odds of admission. The legal fallout resulted in arrests and convictions for some involved in the scheme – and expulsions for some students caught up in the highly publicized ordeal.

Randhawa says she felt pressure to fill out every box and write about every activity she was involved in. Not only was that time-consuming, but she realized it left little room to talk more in-depth about the things she really cared about.

“Try not to fill every single box. Fill things that you were passionate about and actually reflect you as a person,” she says. “Those are important things that I did realize. I made those changes before submitting and I really think that helped me in the application process.”

Don't Forget to Check Curriculum Requirements

All students should check curriculum requirements and take the corresponding high school classes to help get into their preferred program. For example, students seeking admission to engineering programs are probably going to need to take physics and calculus in high school.

Students can find program requirements on college websites, which vary somewhat by institution. If that information is not readily available on the school's website, students should consider directing curriculum questions to admissions officers.

Don't Focus Too Much on Elite Schools

Admissions pros say that many families think getting into a good school requires some type of insider knowledge, but that's not so.

"I think that there's a lot of attention paid to how to get into highly selective institutions, and those schools are pretty small in number in comparison to the opportunities available to students out there," Richardson says.

Some schools have single-digit acceptance rates. For example, Stanford University in California accepted only 4% of applicants in fall 2021.

But that's not the norm.

The national average acceptance rate at the 1,226 ranked schools that provided acceptance rate data to U.S. News was 72.5% in fall 2021. Considering nearly three-fourths of students were accepted to schools they applied to, that means plenty of colleges are open for business.

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