Sept. 12, 2023, at 11:44 a.m.
Given the volume of college applications each year, admissions officers have tough decisions to make when it comes to filling limited seats.
In a competitive admissions environment, students may be rejected from schools where they could thrive, says Eddie Pickett III, senior associate dean and director of recruitment at Pomona College in California.
"For selective colleges, most students who apply can complete the work on campus, but there is only so much space in housing and classrooms," he says. "Each school sets their own evaluation system and applies that while reading student applications."
Applicants can increase their chances of getting accepted by understanding what college admissions officers most like to see on applications. Here are seven common reasons college applications get rejected, according to some experts:
Failure to meet high GPA or test score standards.
Insufficient academic rigor.
Lack of demonstrated interest.
Application essay errors.
Academic integrity concerns.
Failure to Meet High GPA or Test Score Standards
According to a report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the most important factors for admissions at four-year colleges for the fall 2023 freshman class were overall high school GPA and grades in Advanced Placement or other college-prep classes. Strength of the high school curriculum was the next most important. However, the report notes that public and private schools might differ on which factors they deem most important.
With many colleges going test optional, there's been a stark decrease in the level of importance schools place on admission test scores, specifically the ACT and SAT. Just 5% of colleges listed admission test scores as considerably important in 2023, per NACAC, compared to 46% in 2018, the last year such data was gathered.
Applicants should understand how important grades and test scores are in the eyes of admissions officers, particularly at more selective schools, some experts say.
"The term 'holistic review' is one of the best marketing terms created in college admissions," Nat Smitobol, a college admissions counselor at IvyWise, wrote in an email. "It gives students the sense that anyone has a chance, which is not true – especially at the most selective institutions. GPA and test scores are the most common reasons why someone would be eliminated quickly without a comprehensive review."
Smitobol says students should also be aware of how schools might be using artificial intelligence tools to streamline some parts of the admissions process. Colleges use computers to automatically eliminate students before a human reader sees the application, he says.
"Chances are if a school asks you to complete a SRAR, a self-reported academic record, that school is using a computer program to eliminate applications based on your GPA, which is easily calculated by what students have entered in," he says. "This saves time by allowing humans to only read applications that are in the realm of possibility."
Insufficient Academic Rigor
Colleges want students who challenge themselves academically. Admissions officers are less inclined to admit students who breezed through standard-level courses, experts say.
"Obviously schools will look at your GPA, but what they're really looking at is your transcript, not just the average of your grades," Brian Galvin, chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors, wrote in an email. "If your school offers a wide array of AP and Honors courses and you didn’t take many of them, you can have a perfect GPA but you won’t get the credit for academic excellence you might expect."
Most colleges require entrants to have taken a set number of core courses in high school. For example, the University of Iowa generally requires first-year students to have had four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of social studies, two years of the same world language and three years of science to be considered for admission. Admissions officers look at transcripts to ensure that applicants fulfill their admission criteria.
Lack of Demonstrated Interest
For admissions teams, finding qualified students is only half of the battle. They also need to ensure that enough of those admitted actually enroll. As a result, colleges may give favorable judgment to applicants who they think are more likely to attend, Galvin says.
"Admitting great students who don’t enroll means that other great students on the waitlist start making other plans, and the fall’s entering class misses out on that quality it could have had," he says. "So schools really do look at how often you’ve visited campus or attended virtual tours and events; they want to see specifics in your essays about why you want to attend that school."
Students can demonstrate interest by participating in webinars, college visits or other events. Students who are placed on a waitlist can help their chances by writing a letter that further illustrates their interest and checking in periodically and politely with admissions officers to let them know you still intend to attend the school if accepted.
Application Essay Errors
While students can make mistakes on any application material, experts find that blunders are most prevalent on essays.
"The most common errors we find are in a student's essay," Mark Steinlage Jr., vice president for enrollment management at Rockhurst University in Missouri, wrote in an email. "They either rush through it and/or don't proofread, which results in many spelling errors, unintentional auto-corrects, or saying they'll be a great fit at a competitor school when they meant to change it to Rockhurst."
Grammatical hiccups can demonstrate inattentiveness or even carelessness. But according to DJ Menifee, vice president for enrollment at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, they may also raise another concern: that a student does not have the writing capabilities needed to succeed at a particular institution.
The content of the essay could also be a red flag, says Denard Jones, lead college counselor at Empowerly, a college admissions consulting company. Jones previously worked in college admissions at Elon University in North Carolina and Saint Joseph's University in Pennsylvania.
Applicants should never write about anything that could be considered "problematic," Jones says, such as lewd or illegal experiences. An essay lacking maturity leaves admissions officers with a negative feeling about that application, even if the academic components are strong, he says.
“I say this all the time: College is for adults; it’s not for kids,” he says. “If you already are showcasing that you’re not going to be able to handle the pressures and the stress and the independence that comes with college, then that could be a reason off the bat that we might think you’re not ready for us. Maybe there’s another university that would take an opportunity on you."
Fit is a two-way street. Just as students look for schools that fit their interests, schools look for students who fit theirs.
Colleges seek students who can help them meet their institutional objectives, Pickett of Pomona says.
"The mission of a public institution is to educate the people in their state first and foremost," he says. "For private universities, their mission and value statements should guide their priorities. The main goal on a residential college campus is to admit a student body who wants to contribute to the academic and social culture in your community."
These institutional objectives can change each year and, in some cases, might dictate an admissions decision more than any quality an applicant has or doesn't have, Jones says. For example, a university that just spent millions of dollars renovating its engineering building might prioritize building a strong class of prospective engineering students and admit more than usual, which could come at the cost of a student wanting to pursue a different major, he says.
That may be difficult for some applicants to accept, but “institutional priorities are things that you have no control over and there’s nothing you can do about them,” he says. “You have to focus on the things you do have control over."
Some admissions teams target applicants with specific qualities that may indicate their ability to contribute to a school's culture. For example, the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, a Jesuit institution, likes to see service or other forms of community engagement on applicant resumes, according to Cornell LeSane, vice president for enrollment management.
Academic Integrity Concerns
Admissions teams want to be assured that a transcript accurately reflects the abilities of the student who submitted it. LeSane says records of cheating or plagiarism can lead to rejection. Those who have been accepted could see their acceptance rescinded.
In some instances, students with a record of such mistakes may be forgiven. LeSane notes that context matters when it comes to questioning an applicant's academic integrity record.
"Something that occurs in ninth grade can be perceived quite differently than in 11th or 12th grade," he says. "Likewise, there can be a distinction between something that happens once and something that takes place multiple times."
Exceptional grades and test scores sometimes are not enough to ensure acceptance. At particularly selective institutions, students often need "standout factors," Galvin says.
Galvin says leadership positions and college-level research experience on a resume can grab the attention of admissions officers looking beyond transcripts.
"Competitive schools will almost always have lots of 'lookalike' students – pools of students with essentially the same transcripts from the same state or region looking to pursue the same major or field of study," he says. "And with more of those students than they can accept, they’re looking for differentiators to prioritize admitting some over others."
How to Deal With Rejection
Rejection is something everyone will inevitably experience, says Lindsey Giller, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit focused on helping children and young adults with mental health and learning disorders. For some teens, a college rejection might be their first experience with it.
The emotions of the rejection itself can be compounded when friends or peers are accepted into a student's desired school. Hearing them talk about their future plans and even wearing clothes with that school's branding can cause feelings of bitterness or envy, Giller says.
It's important for students to acknowledge and own their disappointment instead of hiding it or sweeping it under the rug. It may seem simple, she says, but verbalizing or writing out your emotions and explicitly stating exactly how you feel can go a long way in processing the emotions sooner and allowing you to move toward acceptance of the situation and excitement about your new reality.
“They can be disappointed that they didn’t get into their top choice school and at the same time they can get motivated for the options that remain, and start to potentially feel some excitement for this other city or this other program," she says.