Common College Application Mistakes

Updated: May 15, 2019
Learn about the most common college application mistakes and how to avoid them.
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Early preparation

Common College Application Mistakes

The college admission process can be a scary one, but it doesn't have to be. Armed with good information and a solid plan of action, you can eliminate mistakes that might stifle your options or kill your chances of admission.

We asked a group of college admission deans and directors from a cross section of American colleges and universities to describe the most common mistakes made by prospective freshmen and to explain ways to avoid them. Here is their list.

The single most important factor in gaining admission to the college of your choice is how well you perform in a college preparatory curriculum, according to a study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. (Second and third in importance are admission test scores and class rank.)

An ideal college-prep curriculum includes the maximum number of English, science, mathematics, social studies, and foreign language classes you can successfully manage in high school. To be sure, other factors will enter into the college admission decision, but nothing will have as much weight as your performance in the classroom.

A related mistake is assuming that a high grade-point average is more important than the difficulty of the classes selected. Nothing could be further from reality.

"The most common reason we deny admission is because students have chosen easy elective courses instead of more demanding college-prep courses," says Dan Saracino, dean of admissions at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

Limited information is the No. 1 cause of bad decisions. Many students fail to identify and use the resources (human and material) available to them during the college exploration and decision-making process. This often leads to the if-only-I-had-known statement at some point in the future.

Contact current college students (perhaps graduates of your high school) for the inside scoop on your top-choice schools. Seek out school counselors, admission counselors, and financial aid officers for specific information regarding the admissions process.

Parents, family members, and friends can serve as sounding boards for all this newly acquired information. There are also countless tools — guides, directories, videos, and software — available through your career/college resource center, guidance office, and school and public libraries. Finally, take advantage of campus visits, college fairs, and counseling seminars to learn more about your options.

Don't choose College X because your best friend did. The reason a friend chose College X may have nothing to do with your educational objectives and ambitions.

Personalize your search so that you can apply your values and test many of the myths about colleges. (Examples: Small colleges are intimate and friendly. The best colleges are the expensive ones.)

"Some students think that if it's a large college, the classes must be large, too," says Patricia Riordan, dean of admissions at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where the student body numbers 24,000, but classes can be as small as 20.

You should also define what you're looking for in a college (e.g., major field of study, location, size) and apply these personal criteria throughout the search. Don't make your decision based on the needs and desires of others.

Be just as wary of "ratings" and "rankings" guides. There are outstanding programs within average institutions and weak academic programs within sound institutions. Create a ranking of colleges that works for you.