6 College Application Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

College application red flags
April 26, 2024
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Crafting the perfect application takes time: so how do you avoid red flags along the way? Read on to learn what things to do for college applications to avoid common mistakes and more. 

Applying to college can be intimidating, particularly when juggling many parts and trying to avoid any mistakes. Submitting a perfect application is always ideal: you want to give yourself the best chance of acceptance

Submitting an incomplete application and other common college application mistakes can affect your chances of admission. We’ll explore how to avoid these common red flags and things to do to make your college application stand out instead. 

Common red flags to avoid in applications

Submitting an Incomplete Application 

Colleges provide you with clear application instructions for a reason - they want you to follow them. So, what happens if your college application is incomplete? Submitting incomplete applications is one of the most common college application pitfalls and the easiest to avoid! 

By submitting an incomplete application, you miss entire application parts and crucial questions, which can delay the admissions review process. 

This only provides colleges with a partial picture of you, harming your chances of admission. If an admissions officer has two applications in front of them, one which clearly outlines the applicant’s goals, strengths, and fit for the program, and another provides only partial information, which one would they admit?

How to Avoid It

Now that you know what happens if your college applications are incomplete, it’s best to avoid this mistake at all costs. The best way to avoid this misstep on your college application is to create a list of application deadlines and requirements. 

Although it may take time to collect information for every college you intend to apply to, doing so ensures you won’t miss anything. 

Once you have compiled all the information you need, work through each point and tick it off when you’re done. 

Mike Perry, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Florida Institute of Technology, also recommends completing optional sections. “Most colleges and universities put it on there because they want the information to help them make an informed decision,” Perry explains. 

Most colleges, like Fordham University, won’t penalize you for not completing any optional writing sections. However, these sections are excellent places to address weaker aspects of your application. These factors can include but are not limited to lower SAT scores, a lack of extracurriculars, or a low GPA.  

Not Completing Curriculum Requirements 

Although colleges review applications holistically, you need to satisfy your preferred program’s curriculum requirements before you can gain admission. If you don’t meet this requirement, your college application will be automatically disqualified or admitted provisionally under the condition you complete the appropriate remedial courses.

Completing coursework requirements can be difficult, as they vary between colleges. Engineering programs, for example, will likely require physics and calculus classes compared to a humanities program. On the other hand, humanities programs typically ask for more writing experience. 

Some colleges, like Yale University, do not have specific entrance requirements but want to see students excel in certain core subjects. Yale, for example, seeks “students who have taken a balanced set of the rigorous classes available to them” and recommends taking annual courses in: 

  • Math
  • English
  • Foreign language (at least one)  
  • Science
  • Social sciences. 

How to Avoid It

To avoid course-related college application mistakes, build your college list and research each of their curriculum requirements. Remember that coursework requirements can differ between colleges, so review your course list carefully. 

Ensure you know the difference between a college’s required and recommended courses because you should complete required courses before pursuing the recommended options. Stanford, for example, suggests you complete the following courses

  • English (four years)
  • Foreign Language (three or more years)
  • History/Social Studies (three or more years)
  • Mathematics (four years)
  • Science (three or more years)

MIT recommends you complete the following classes

  • Biology (one year)
  • Chemistry (one year)
  • English (one year)
  • Foreign Language (two years)
  • History/ Social Sciences (two years)
  • Math (including calculus) 
  • Physics (one year) 

Once you have made a list of the courses to take, match them with the classes available to you. If your high school doesn’t offer challenging classes, explore other options like dual enrollment, IB, or AP classes at local colleges or virtual high schools. 

Inappropriate Social Media Posts 

Colleges have denied admission and rescinded offers of acceptance from candidates based on social media content. Harvard University rejected ten students in 2017 due to offensive memes shared on Facebook. 

Three years later, the University of Florida, Cornell, and Marquette, among several other schools, rescinded acceptance offers due to applicants’ racist social media posts

Even social media posts created by candidates years before they submitted a college application can affect their candidacy. Harvard rescinded its acceptance of Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2019 after racist tweets from two years prior were uncovered. 

Source: Inside Higher Ed 

How to Avoid It 

Although the practice of checking social media profiles is declining, it isn’t dead. So, don’t post anything sexist, racist, bigoted, or threatening on social media. 

Instead, create a digital portfolio that highlights your soft skills, such as leadership, collaboration, and time management. Emphasizing these qualities is a great way to stand out and showcase your skills. 

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers also notes that 52% of its survey respondents who checked a student’s social media activity continued to do so after offering them admission. So, continue to promote a positive image of yourself on social media even after you’re accepted. 

Submitting a Resume That’s Too Long  

A long resume is difficult to read and isn’t impactful. Submitting a resume that’s too long or includes unnecessary information won’t increase your chances of admission. Ask yourself, do college programs really need to know about the one term you spent playing soccer in Grade 9? 

How to Avoid It 

Keep your college resume simple, concise, and impactful. If you can’t fit everything onto one or two pages, rewrite it. A great college resume will include your:

  • Name, e-mail, and address
  • High school information and graduation date 
  • GPA (weighted), class rank, and SAT/ ACT scores
  • Academic publications, honors, and awards
  • Completed coursework including college courses, summer programs, and workshops
  • Extracurriculars, including community service
  • Work experience

If you have any unusual or special skills or hobbies, such as fluency in many languages, include them in your resume. Differentiating your application with these special skills and hobbies is a great thing to do to make your college application stand out. 

Colleges are interested in the scope of your involvement in extracurricular and academic activities. Creating a concise resume provides you with more space to highlight specific elements that summarize your achievements: this is what colleges like to see on applications.

If you’re struggling to create a concise college resume, you can get help from a professional or your school counselor to create a stellar resume.

Writing Generic Admissions Essays 

Many students wonder, “how are college applications reviewed?” Most colleges review applications holistically. While your GPA and test scores are essential application components, they can’t speak to qualities such as leadership skills and empathy. 

Colleges, therefore, use essays to uncover more about who you are, your ambitions, and whether you’ll be a good fit for their program. 

College admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, so your writing needs to stand out. Remember that writing impersonal essays won’t let your personality shine and can raise red flags in college applications.

This is one of the college application mistakes that can take you from standing out as an otherwise strong candidate to blending in with the masses!

How to Avoid It

The most important aspect of writing your admissions essays is simple — be authentic.  As Walter Caffey, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admission and Student Aid at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, stresses, "We want students to be original. We want them to be themselves.” 

It can be challenging to select a topic and write about it. After all, you are condensing your relevant experiences into usually less than 1000 words. However, it’s important to self-reflect and select a compelling topic, as writing about it will be much easier. 

Ensure you inject your personality into the essays; look inward and share your thoughts, feelings, actions, and reflections. Providing detailed and specific accounts of these insights adds the differentiation colleges seek. Even if you write about a topic many can relate to, the details you provide must make it a one-of-a-kind narrative. 

Looking at essay examples submitted by admitted students can help guide your writing. While you should never copy their work, you can analyze their writing and find inspiration. 

Let’s review one college admissions essay example from an admitted student at Johns Hopkins University. 

College Admissions Essay Example 

The writer outlines the tricky process of crocheting a unicorn. After working on it for several days, their work finally resembles something like a unicorn, and, reflecting on the process, they write: 

“Very much like learning how to crochet, my journey in forging my own path and finding a passion was confusing, messy, and at times infuriating. Even in primary school, I had heard all the stories of individuals finding their own route in life. I had been told stories of those who found their passion at a young age and were exceptionally proficient at their craft, of those that abandoned their interests and pursued a lucrative career, even those who chose their dreams but regretted it afterward. This weighed heavily on me, as I was determined to have a success story as many of my other family members had. The only problem was that I did not have a direction.
In the years following primary school, I stepped out of my comfort zone in a frenzy to find a passion. I joined the school orchestra where I played the violin, and a debate class to practice public speaking and become much more eloquent. At my ballet school, I branched out to contemporary and jazz dance. I stuffed myself with an experience similar to an amigurumi engorged with batting. I found myself enjoying all of those activities but soon enough, I was swamped with extracurriculars. Just like the tangles of white yarn on my desk, I was pulled in all directions. I still felt lost. To make things worse, it seemed as if everyone else had found their path in life, and they had all become white unicorns while I was still doubting the stitch I just made.
It was not until high school that I realized that I could view this mission to find a passion from another perspective. While successfully completing a crochet project is an accomplishment itself, the motions of making slip knots, single or double crochets takes you on an adventure as well. The knots that I had encountered in my craft were evidence of my experiences and what shaped me as an individual. My exploration of various paths through detours may have sometimes resulted in roadblocks, but I continued to persevere and learn from my experiences, applying the skills that I have gained to future knots. The mini-adventures that I went on were all crucial to me in the greater journey of life.
Through trial and error, the current adventure that I am on resonates the most with me, taking me down the path of service and environmental activism. However, I have learned that no one path is static, and I can be on more than one path at a time. While I may only be halfway to the proportionate unicorn amigurumi that some others may have already achieved, I still have so much to learn and so much that I want to learn, and so my journey to grow continues.” 

Why this is a good essay: The writer’s response provides the reader with a clear picture of their passions; their interests include crochet, dancing, environmental activism, and playing the violin. Their essay is unique, engaging, and impactful. 

They also explore their approach to new things. Throughout the essay, they reflect on their journey of pushing themselves outside their comfort zone and continually developing as a person, which Johns Hopkins values. 

Not Demonstrating Why You Are a Good Fit For a School

Universities admit students who will contribute to their academic and social environments. As Lee Coffin, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth College, explains, “We’re looking to populate the class with people who are going to complement the community that we’re trying to build.” 

Submitting a generic application that doesn’t demonstrate why you are a good fit for a college’s program is destined for failure. If you don’t explain how you will merge into an institution’s culture, curriculum, and community, your application may be seen as uncompelling. 

How to Avoid It 

One of the best things to do in your college application is to demonstrate you're a good fit for the school through your admissions essays. Start the process by doing some college research and listing what aspects of a school entice you. This can include:

  • Student clubs/ organizations/ societies you want to join
  • Professors you want to work alongside
  • Research institutions that interest you 
  • Elements of the curriculum that excite you 

Admissions officers want to envision how you will become an active member of their community, so give detailed examples showing how you will actively participate. Whatever examples you include, ensure you explain why they interest you and how they will help you achieve your goals.

Another subtle way to convince admissions officers you’re a great fit is to align your essay’s content with its mission and values. Rice University, for example, has the following four core values:

  • Responsibility 
  • Integrity 
  • Community 
  • Excellence

Perhaps you have volunteered for years in your community. Your volunteer work could be the perfect topic as it also aligns with Rice’s values of responsibility and community. Remember, colleges like to see application content related to their school’s mission! 

Other College Application Mistakes to Avoid

While we’ve listed some of the most common application errors, these are other major red flags you should avoid: 

  • Submitting an application riddled with grammar and spelling errors 
  • Obtaining generic letters of recommendation from people who don’t know you well enough to vouch for your character 
  • Submitting essays that don’t match your academic ability or any inconsistencies in your performance that don’t make sense 
  • Participating in too few or no extracurricular activities or participating in so many that you’ve stretched yourself way too thin
  • Unexplained circumstances for grade dips, sudden curriculum changes, or disciplinary action
  • Writing application essays that disregard the word limit and are way too short or long 
  • Writing your essays in a tone that is either too strict or much too casual 
  • Coming across as unpassionate or disinterested 

Crafting the perfect application can be challenging, but avoiding these common pitfalls will help you become a stronger candidate. 

Make Your College Application Shine

Submitting a stellar application can be tricky, but hopefully, you now understand more about the admissions process and can avoid these common college application mistakes. Ensure you follow every college’s admissions instructions and submit a complete application, including school-specific coursework requirements.  

Maintain a professional, if not neutral, social media presence throughout the application process. Additionally, create essays that show your fit and your personality. Good luck with the application process. 

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