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College Application Red Flags

You filled out your Common App and your supplements are done – you’re ready to submit your applications, right? Not so fast! Reviewing your apps before hitting “submit” can help you catch any application red flags that you may have missed or didn’t consider before.

What is an application red flag? Simply put, it’s something on a college application that can make an admissions officer second guess how qualified an applicant is or if they’re a good-fit for the school. A red flag can be as serious as a disciplinary infraction, or as simple as not following application directions. A red flag won’t necessarily send you directly to the “no” pile, but it will prompt an admissions officer to dig a little deeper and draw inferences from what they’re seeing in your application. This is why it’s important to identify any red flags before submission and work to correct them.

Here are a few application red flags that every student should watch out for before hitting “submit.”

Not Following Directions
Students want nothing more than to stand out from the rest of the applicant pool when applying to college. Often this can mean doing things that are “outside-of-the-box” or different from what colleges have asked for in order to make a memorable impression. While taking risks is sometimes part of the process, students need to remember that following directions is paramount. Not following them can send up red flags to colleges that maybe you’re not serious about the school to which you applied. Did you properly address the essay prompts? Did you include the right recommendation letters? Do you plan to submit additional letters even though the college asked you not to? Is your essay in a video format when the school explicitly asked for a written response of 250-words? Did you meet the word limits and not go over them? These are all things students need to examine when reviewing their applications before submitting. Following the directions makes the admissions process easier for both you and the admissions officer reviewing your application.

Incomplete Materials or Information
It’s important that your college application is complete before submitting. While this seems like a no-brainer, it is not uncommon to skip a section of your college application with the intention of coming back to it later. An innocent and unintended omission, if not caught, can send up a red flag to admissions officers. Double and triple check that all sections of your Common App or Coalition App are completely filled out, and that there’s nothing missing. This can include anything that you may need to address in the “additional information” section, which we will cover in more detail next. This also applies to any materials that you’re sending after your application is submitted, like score reports, portfolios, or additional recommendation letters. Ensure that all materials are organized and sent in by the appropriate deadlines. While you may not be able to control a delay in your transcript being sent to a school, you can control how you communicate that delay to admissions officials. Not doing so can send a red flag that maybe this application is not a top priority for you.

Unexplained Grade Dips, Curriculum Changes, or Disciplinary Infractions
Above we mentioned the “additional information” section that can be used to explain certain elements of your application that can send up a red flag, like grade dips on your transcript, a change in courses, or disciplinary problems. This is where it’s important to provide additional context to explain what happened, why, and how you’ve grown from the experience. For example, if you went through a particularly challenging personal experience your junior year that caused your grades to suffer – explain it. If you made an error in judgment that resulted in a suspension, explain how you’ve grown from that experience. It’s important to provide context for things that might make an admissions officer question whether or not you’re mature or academically prepared enough to succeed at their institution.

Typos and Spelling or Grammar Errors
One typo won’t derail your whole application, but it can cause students a lot of sleepless nights fretting over whether that “our” rather than “out” ruined their chances at their top-choice colleges. One or two spelling or grammatical errors can slide, but if an essay is riddled with them, that will send up giant red flags to admissions officers. Read and re-read your essays to check for any mistakes – especially those that spellcheck won’t catch! The biggest error that can significantly hurt your application is forgetting to replace “Brown” with “Harvard” if you copied your Brown supplement into your Harvard application. This is why we stress the important of tailoring your essays to each school and to avoid recycling supplements.

Lack of Detail or Context
A little bit of detail can go a long way in your applications. An activity list that just states you’re the president of a club but doesn’t explain what you did in that position can signal to colleges that you didn’t take the role seriously or didn’t make much of an impact. Details are critical, so check your activity list for any places where you might be able to explain your role and impact more accurately. For example, don’t just say “founder of robotics club.” Include the steps you had to take to create the club, how many members you recruited, the competitions you competed in, and how that club contributed to the goals of your school. Even if the detail seems insignificant or implied, include it anyway and consult your college counselor for more guidance on how to better edit down your activity descriptions if you find you have too much information included.

There are a number of things that students can look out for before hitting “submit” in order to avoid including red flags in their college applications. At IvyWise, a member of our counseling team can also serve as an additional “pair of eyes” with our Application Review service. You will choose a counselor from our team of former admissions officers who will then review your application and supplement to your-top choice school in order to note any red flags you may not have caught and provide feedback on how to improve your application, before you submit it, in order to have the best chance of admission. Contact us today for more information and to get started!

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