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10 College Application Mistakes to Avoid

By Mari, IvyWise Master Admissions Counselor

Just as there is no one path to getting admitted to a particular school, there is no one reason that applicants get rejected. Usually, it is a combination of factors, not all of which are within the applicant’s control.

There are, however, many common mistakes that can be easily avoided by planning ahead, taking your time, and being mindful of the information that you’re giving to the admissions committee. These mistakes or “red flags” could send your application to the “no” pile if you’re not careful.

That may sound nerve-wracking, but the good news is with a little proofreading, you can give your application a much better chance in the competitive game of selective college admissions. As a former admissions officer at MIT, here are some common mistakes I saw frequently that can be easily avoided:

Leaving Out Vital Personal Details

Context is everything in the admissions process. Applicants from low socio-economic backgrounds or whose parents did not attend college are measured with a different yardstick than affluent applicants who have had numerous opportunities for personal and academic growth and exploration. The applicant who spends several hours every weekday babysitting younger siblings or who has to work 25 hours a week to help with the family finances may not have the same academic or extracurricular profile of their peers. That said, when put in context, babysitting or other part-time jobs can be considered an extracurricular activity!

But context is much more nuanced than socio-economic circumstances alone. Reflect on your circumstances and try to see it from an objective point of view: what is your community like? What kind of home life do you have? What family responsibilities do you shoulder? Then, let colleges know. Help the admissions committee to imagine you in your context, in as full and rich a way as possible. Applicants who leave out this vital personal backstory often lose out in the admissions game.

Your Essays Are One-Sided

Have you thought about what you bring to the college and its campus life? Make sure your essays don’t just address what the college can do for you, but also how you can contribute to their community. When applicable, do you give credit to teachers, mentors, bosses, and others who have shepherded you along the way? It’s okay to point out weaknesses in your high school, but remember to be respectful and never blame your school for your own shortcomings.

Lacking Ambition and Vision

One thing that would send an MIT application to the “no” pile pretty quickly for me was an applicant who would say they want to study at MIT so that they can get a good job after graduation. Of course, schools read applications contextually: for first-generation college students, going to a premier college and getting a well-paying job IS ambitious. Readers know this and adjust their thinking accordingly. However, it’s easier to offer admission to someone who has a compelling vision for their future and who convinces the reader that they will do something great with their education.

Lack of Familiarity with the School: Demonstrated Interest is Crucial

Most colleges use some sort of admissions rubric to evaluate their applicant pool. Some schools factor the amount of interest an applicant seems to have for the school (i.e., demonstrated interest) in the rating systems. Colleges want to admit students who genuinely know and like the school and might actually attend if admitted. This also helps improve their yield rates, which is a priority for every college because it impacts their place on rankings lists and it can also influence their bond ratings.

An important piece of demonstrated interest is your answer to the school’s version of the “Why this college?” essay. Your essay should be full of specific details about the academic programs and student activities that attract you to the school and how you would contribute to the school community. If you haven’t investigated the school thoroughly, your essay will be bland and may even come across as insincere.

Avoid “TMI”

Your application is not a confessional, but rather a place to celebrate your best self. Be very careful about revealing your neuroses, fears, failures, regrets, etc. unless those revelations are convincingly balanced by highlighting the positives that came out of difficult experiences. If discussing a personal struggle or traumatic life experience, be sure to demonstrate you have come through to the other side of the tunnel. Otherwise, leave it out.

Also avoid the other type of TMI: too much extra information that doesn’t enhance the application. Don’t send in nine letters of recommendation, copies of every academically-related certificate ever earned, and a bunch of press clippings from the local paper. Admissions officers have a plethora of application materials to read in a very short window of time. Be thoughtful and strategic about what extra materials you submit, especially if the school mentions a limit on certain materials in their application.

Incomplete Activities List

For anyone who still thinks perfect grades and SAT scores alone will get you into highly selective colleges in the US, think again! What you do outside of the classroom — your extracurricular activities, for example — is one of the most important things that separates merely qualified applicants from desirable ones. With record high applicant rates and record low admission rates, soft factors, like activities, are often the dealmakers today. Make sure you spend ample time on your activities list in your application.

Don’t forget to indicate the years of participation, calculate the number of hours per week, and tell the school your role in each activity, especially if you were a leader. Also, provide an explanation of any obscure activities. Don’t leave out something that is important to you because you think the admissions committee doesn’t care about your sewing hobby, for example. And, finally, absolutely do not submit a resume in lieu of completing the activities list! Resumes should be used to supplement your activities section — not as a replacement.

The Repurposed Essay: Answer Each Essay Prompt Individually

Applying to 10 schools while you’re juggling a busy schedule can be tough, to say the least. It’s tempting to try to answer the essay prompts for all 10 supplements with that one great essay you slaved over, but be careful here. You can score low marks on the demonstrated interest test if it is obvious to the reader that you have repurposed an essay for another school to kinda, sorta fit their prompt. Admissions officers tend to be familiar with the prompts from peer institutions, so they will most likely notice and be unimpressed with your efforts.


Don’t fill your essays with ten-dollar words when ten-cent ones will do just fine. If you have a large vocabulary, by all means don’t dumb yourself down. However, large words used improperly won’t impress anyone, and could be enough to turn the reader off from you altogether. The words that flow naturally will give your essays an authentic voice. It goes without saying that authenticity in the application process is crucial. Admissions officers want to get to know YOU, not who you think they want you to be. They can spot inflated essay answers and an unnatural vocabulary from a mile away.

Spelling, Grammar, and/or Punctuation Errors

If you were born and bred in an English-speaking environment, readers will expect you to have a strong command of proper grammar and punctuation. A spelling or grammar error alone won’t send an application to the “no” pile, but an essay riddled with mistakes can come off as sloppy and leave admissions officers wondering how much attention you actually paid to your application.

If English is your second language, try to have a native speaker review your application for any errors in word choice, in addition to errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. No one will expect your prose to be perfect, but go the extra mile and have someone review your essays nonetheless.

Inadequate Proofreading

Finally, don’t rely on spell-check alone. Read your essay out loud, have another pair of eyes take a look, proofread and then proofread again! Double and triple check your application and admissions essays to catch any spelling, grammar, or informational mistakes. Admissions officers are only human, after all. They can’t help but be turned off from your MIT application when you neglect to replace “Harvard” with “MIT” in your essay. It might not put you in the reject pile immediately, but don’t risk it!

There’s a lot to consider when applying to college. It’s not just about where you apply, but also the content and substance of your application. By avoiding these common mistakes, you’ll be in the best position to gain admission to your top-choice college! Be sure to stay mindful of common application mistakes and ensure that you’re avoiding them. If you need additional application support, contact us today for more information on services for high school seniors.

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