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5 Common College Application Red Flags and How to Address Them

Students will spend a lot of time stressing over their college applications, but small mistakes like a typo in an essay won’t send you to the “no” pile – it’s common college application red flags that students need to address in order to improve their admission chances.

Colleges look at all four years of high school when evaluating applications, and there are certain things they look for that might not be obvious to students, like upward grade trends, increasing curriculum rigor each year, consistent involvement in activities or a field of study, and more. If admission officers notice some of those things are missing or erratic, it will send up some red flags, and force them to consider whether or not that applicant is prepared for the rigors of a college education or the responsibility that comes with leaving home.

Our team of expert counselors has complied a list of five common college application red flags and what students can do to address them when, or even before, applying to college.

Grade Dips
If you’re a straight-A student but suddenly racked up a few C’s one semester, the admissions office will want to know why. This is the most common red flag, and often the easiest to rectify if you take the time to address why it happened and what you have done or are currently doing to bring you grades back up. One bad grade can usually be easily explained, but a whole semester’s worth becomes problematic, as it looks like you’re starting to slack.

What to do: Use the “additional information” section on the Common Application to explain why your grades took a hit. Were you suffering from an illness? Was there a personal issue that affected your studies? Did you take on too challenging of a course load? Explain what happened and what you did to address your grade problems. Ask your counselor to also address your circumstances in your recommendation letter.

Curriculum Changes
Colleges want to see students taking classes with increasing difficulty each year and performing well in them. If after three years of taking honors and AP courses you suddenly switch back to regular courses, colleges will notice. Other curriculum changes like dropping a major subject like math or science, dropping courses related to your field of interest, or only taking electives your senior year can send up major red flags, too. This can come across as unfocused or even look like you’re not taking academics seriously in the year leading up to college.

What to do: Use the “additional information” section on the Common Application to explain any major course changes, like maybe you switched schools and they didn’t offer the same level of courses you had at your previous school. Or maybe an extenuating circumstance forced you to scale back your course load. Be honest and show how you’re still challenging yourself academically even if your curriculum has changed. If you’re a current junior, meet with your college counselor to discuss what you can do to adjust your courseload and any other options to introduce rigor, like self studying for AP exams, taking SAT Subject tests, or exploring other course options like MOOCs or classes at a local college.

Disciplinary Infractions
Colleges don’t care if you have one or two tardies, but the admissions committee will definitely make note disciplinary actions like expulsions, suspensions, and academic probation. Colleges want to know you’re mature and able to succeed in a rigorous academic environment with a lot of independence. Severe disciplinary actions can signal that you’re not ready for the responsibly of college life – even if you have perfect grades and test scores.

What to do: Use the “additional information” section on the Common Application to explain what happened. If you were caught drinking, were you caught up in peer pressure at the homecoming dance? If you plagiarized, did you pull three all-nighters in a row and cave under the pressure? Own up to your mistakes, but provide context and show how you’ve matured from the event. Your counselor can also provide context in your recommendation. Make sure to meet with your college counselor and have a discussion about how you’ve grown from the experience and how you plan to show that in your application, whether it’s through the additional information section, the essay, or any other supplemental materials.

Extended Leaves of Absence
Many students experience circumstances that force them to take a leave of absence from school, oftentimes because of health issues or family situations. One or two absences won’t hurt your college chances, but a series of absences or four-month break from classes might. If you’ve missed a whole semester or year, or your grades have suffered from repeated absences, you need to address it.

What to do: This is where a strong relationship with your college counselor comes in handy. Your college counselor can help you determine the best way to address any leaves of absence. While the additional information section is a good place to start, your counselor can also provide context in your recommendation. If you were absent for an extended period of time because of a health problem, consider asking your doctor to provide a brief letter of explanation to send along with your application.

Inconsistent Information
Admissions officers look at all materials provided, and are very good at noticing when one piece of information doesn’t exactly match with another. For example, sometimes students will pad their resumes to look more impressive. If you claim to be the first place winner at your regional science fair, and in a recommendation letter your physics teacher applauds your second place finish, it will immediately raise questions for those evaluating your application. Other inconsistent information can include a course load with a heavy emphasis on science and math, but extracurricular activities that have nothing to do with your interest in STEM.

What to do: This is one of the easiest red flags to correct, as all it takes is being honest and double checking all of your application materials before sending. Make sure you’re being honest and forthright on all of your materials, and not inflating any accomplishments in an effort to give yourself a leg up. If you’re a STEM applicant who hasn’t pursued too many STEM activities because of your dedication to dance, write your personal statement about how your interest in STEM and dance intersect, and how one has made you appreciate the other. Sometimes all admissions officers need is more context about information that doesn’t quite align at first glance. If you’re a current sophomore or junior, you can start to correct this type of red flag now by focusing your interests and pursing activities that better align with your interests and dedicating more time to them.

When addressing and college application red flags it’s important to be honest, admit any mistakes or lapses in judgment, take responsibility, and show what you’ve learned from your experience and what you’ve done to correct any problems. If you’re not sure about how to handle any “red flags,” or if you want to make sure any of your application components won’t set off any alarms, contact us today for more information on our application review services.