10 Things NOT to Do on a College Application

10 Things NOT to Do on a College Application

19 November, 2020

When it comes time for you to apply to college, there are certain common mistakes you should always avoid — from typos to asking the wrong teacher for a letter of recommendation.

Read below to learn how you can prevent some of these common college application mistakes:

1. Failing to Answer the Question Asked

Bari Norman, co-founder and president of Expert Admissions, said some applicants don’t actually read the essay questions and simply “go in with a lot of assumptions about what the college wants to hear.”

“I think sometimes students overthink things and begin reading into things without looking first at what’s right in front of them,” she said.

How to avoid it: Read each essay and short answer question thoroughly, underlining the important components you want to address. Once you’re done writing your response, proofread what you wrote but ALSO make sure it addresses the prompt. Ensuring that your response addresses the prompt is just as impotant as proofreading and spell check.

2. Including Typos and Grammatical Mistakes

Avoid spelling errors and grammar mistakes in your application. Attention in this regard shows admissions officers that you took the time to thoughtfully answer their supplemental essays and to review your work.  Bottom line-colleges want to see that you care and that you did not just throw something together at the last minute.  This holds true for the entire college admissions process.

“College applicants can be so anxious about their applications, but on the other hand, so eager to get them done, and wanting to get it off their lap and into the admission officer’s lap,” Norman said.

It’s okay to recycle parts of your college essays on different applications if the questions are the same, Norman says — but don’t forget to change the name of the school on each application, a mistake she’s seen in the past. Submitting the wrong essay or personal statement to a particular school can be a fatal flaw. And be sure you tailor your responses to each school, even if the basic framework is the same. If you’re looking at a large college in the city and another in the countryside, make certain you explain why each of these settings is the one you’re looking for on the correct application.

How to avoid it: When it’s time to start editing, don’t rush it. Copy editors read through pieces several times, and so should you. It also doesn’t hurt to have a fresh pair of eyes on your application, so ask someone you know who is a strong writer. She may well catch a mistake you didn’t.

3. Overusing the Additional Information Section

Overusing the Additional Information section of the common application is one of the most common mistakes students make. Use it sparingly, Norman says, adding that she recommends students avoid “writing a whole other essay about why you want to go there.”

You shouldn’t feel like you have to have additional information to report. According to College Coach, an educational advising organization, you should carefully consider whether it’s necessary for you to use this space.

High school students tend to feel that there is always more to share but this section isn’t a chance to talk about something you’ve already mentioned in your application, share that your junior year was dififcult, or to further expand on your accomplishments/extra curricular activities. This area is for you to share information that didn’t fit in anywhere else and that has impacted your academic career. College Coach gives the following examples of appropriate subjects to share: divorce, a death in the family, a serious illness, a lengthy interruption in school, a disciplinary issue, a learning disability, and other major life events.

How to avoid it: Before filling this section in, ask yourself, “Is the picture I’m presenting of myself incomplete?” If you answer yes, try enhancing other parts of your application, such as your essay or short answers, before relying on this section. If you feel certain you should fill in this area, ask your college counselor to tell you whether you are using the space appropriately.

4. Asking the Wrong Teacher for a Recommendation

On CBS MoneyWatch{: target="_blank}, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author and consultant on issues that college-bound teens may face, wrote that it’s important for teachers to be specific in their recommendation letters — and you won’t get that from a teacher you don’t have a relationship with.

“The more a teacher knows and respects a student, the better the letter is likely to be,” O’Shaughnessy wrote.  The same goes for letters from a guidance counselor.

How to avoid it: Think carefully before asking a teacher for a recommendation. Does this person know your passions and strengths well? Have some back-up choices in case things don’t work out with the person you had in mind. Learn more about how to leverage this part of your application in our article A Guide to Getting Great Recommendation Letters From Your Teachers.

5. Using an Unprofessional Email Address

According to ACT Student, you should avoid using an email address “that friends might laugh at.” In other words, keep it professional.

How to avoid it: If you still chuckle every time you look at the email address you’ve had since first grade, it’s time to change it. A good rule of thumb is using a combination of your first and last name.

6. Writing With Unnecessarily Flowery Language

In your essay, don’t be metaphorical where it doesn’t work well. Norman points out that students often believe they must have some sort of “hook” in their essays, and try to make the writing seem metaphorical, even when doing so might not happen naturally. “Things can come across as a lot more forced,” Norman says.

How to avoid it: Your essay should sound natural. Ask someone who knows you well to read it and tell you if it sounds like you. Learn more about how to improve your essay by reading 10 Silly College Application Essay Mistakes to Avoid.

7. Not Giving the Activities Section Enough Attention

Take your time when filling out the activities section, Norman says. That means making sure you include everything — or at least everything that’s substantive.

Norman explains that she encourages students to remove activities that don’t add value, or that didn’t really impact the applicant. But, she also adds, “I think it goes both ways —where people throw everything on, and then when people leave important things off.”

How to avoid it: If you had to give someone a quick summary of your extracurricular life, what would you mention? The activities you feel would sum up this part of your life are probably what you should focus on.

8. Not Checking Your Email

College admissions officers often communicate with students exclusively via email. You can miss out on an important email from a college or university just because you don’t regularly check your inbox, according to the ACT website. Emails can include updates about application deadlines, financial aid deadlines, your application status or follow up questions about missing information.

How to avoid it: If you aren’t in the habit of looking at your inbox, set an alarm on your phone to remind you to check email once a day.

9. Forgetting Sections, Signatures, and Payments

This might seem obvious, but don’t forget to check that everything is filled out, including all necessary signatures. Leaving something blank raises questions about what you’re choosing to leave unanswered.

On U.S. News & World Report{: target="_blank}, Karen Giannino, senior associate dean of admission at Colgate University{: target="_blank}, said that anything that raises a question — dropping out of your foreign language class your senior year, for example — should be clarified.

“Tell us, so we don't just assume you decided to take it easy senior year,” Giannino said on U.S. News.

And don’t forget to pay those pesky application fees! Overlooking this requirement will keep your application from being processed. If you need help covering the cost of applying, check out the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) waiver or the Common App Fee Waiver.

How to avoid it: Read through your application as if you are someone who knows nothing about you. If there are parts that are unclear or parts that you accidentally forgot to fill out, make sure to address them before hitting the submit button.

10. Having a Parent Fill out the Application

You should take the lead in the college application process, rather than your parents. It’s okay to get some advice from them, but the essay and other material should come from you, the ACT website says. For the sections that ask specifically about your parents, you can get the information from them and add it yourself.

How to avoid it: The college is accepting you, not your parents. You can ask them to help you answer specific, parent-related questions, instead of allowing them to make the changes to your application themselves.


O'Shaughnessy, L. (2013, August 6). 7 College Application Mistakes to Avoid. Retrieved November 13, 2014, from CBS News

Rubin, C. (2013, September 11). Avoid These Big College Application Mistakes. Retrieved November 12, 2014, from U.S. News and World Report

Top 10 College Application Mistakes. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2014, from ACT Student

About the Author
Jordan Friedman
Jordan Friedman is a writer based in New York who primarily covers topics in education. He graduated from Emory University, and his work has appeared in publications such as USA Today, CNN.com and...

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