College Application Mistakes: 16 Reasons Students Get Lost in the Application Pile

InGenius Prep

College Application Mistakes: 16 Reasons Students Get Lost in the Application Pile

When you finally hit submit, your 13-page college application is buried in a digital stack of thousands. Your job as an applicant: stand out from everyone else in the pile. This is no easy feat. Many strong applicants make college application mistakes that unfortunately seal their fate.

At top schools, the numbers tell us that most students in the application pile face rejection. At Stanford this past cycle, a whopping 95.7% of applicants received the dreaded “thanks for applying, but...” letter. As admissions offices across the country continue to post record low acceptance rates year after year, it’s easier to get lost in the stack.

Read these 16 college application mistakes and understand why most students stay submerged in the application pile (and learn how to avoid making the same mistakes).

1. Boring Background

If you appear as another typical student, applying for a common major, with average involvement in activities that admissions officers see all the time, you will be forgotten before you are even considered. Work to highlight something unique, exciting, and different about yourself. Whether it’s being an avid unicyclist, speaking three languages, or having an impressive sneaker collection, admissions officers want to see what makes you YOU. If your application looks just like the previous student's, there is no reason for admissions officers to advocate for you.

2. Cliché Personal Statement Topics

Admissions officers read thousands of personal statements each year. Some essay topics have become cliché over time and will instantly make you a forgettable applicant. One of the most common college application mistakes is selecting one of these overused topics. Avoid writing about “the big game,” how your grandmother/grandfather inspires you, your community service trip abroad, the list goes on and on. For 30 of the worst personal statement topics that we’ve seen, check out this blog. While these topics aren’t necessarily off limits, you should be aware that they are very typical, and you will need to work hard to make sure your narrative is unique.

3. Nearly Empty Activities List Entries

Too many students take the Common App activities list for granted, treating it as simply a form they need to fill out. There is just a small space per activity (150 characters to be exact), but the words add up. Each entry allows the student to share how they spend their time and the impact they’ve had on their community. Failing to take advantage of your activities list can really hurt you in the end, as admissions officers will only have a title or general description to learn about your passions. Use every character of your activities list descriptions to make a strong impression!

4. Generic “Why School” Supplemental Essays

If an admissions officer sees generic reasons for why you want to attend their school, they will quickly skim the rest of your supplemental essays and move on. You should be able to articulate what your planned major at a particular school will be and explain why you've chosen it, what resources you’ll take advantage of, and how you will add to the campus community. Pro tip: If you can replace the name of the school in your essay and it still makes sense, you need to try again and get more specific.

5. Repetitive Content

Too often, students recycle content from their personal statement and apply it in supplemental essays throughout the application. Use every opportunity to share something new and/or corroborate your interests - don’t just repeat! The same goes for your letters of recommendation. Admissions Officers want to see you have a clear passion, but don’t want to read the same thing over and over again. You have every opportunity to showcase your personality, interests and impact. Take advantage of it!

6. Lackluster Grades

This may seem obvious, but your grades are an extremely important component of your application. An “A+” student with less than perfect standardized test scores can get into top colleges, but a “C” student with perfect test scores will have a hard time getting admitted. Admission Officers can be a little forgiving when it comes to test scores, as such tests for measuring intelligence are flawed and only represent performance on one day. But of all the college application mistakes, poor grades can rarely be overlooked. Don’t underestimate this key piece of the puzzle!

7. Bland Letters of Recommendation

While admissions offices won’t fault the applicant, poorly written letters of recommendation that provide generalized statements about the student are a missed opportunity for admissions officers to learn more about you. Make sure to ask teachers with whom you have a genuine connection, and don't hesitate to provide specific information about yourself that might make their letter writing easier. For example, tell them why you enjoyed their class, what piece of work you were most proud of, an example of a time you felt like a leader in class, etc. If applicants don’t have glowing letters of recommendation on their file, it can definitely make admissions officers think twice.

8. Mediocre Interviews

The college interview is a great chance for the admissions office to learn what you’re actually like as a human! Use this opportunity to demonstrate why you would be a great fit for the school, show different sides of you, and add a bit of color to your profile. Applicants who have a bad attitude in the interview won’t be taken seriously!

9. Being Too Well-Rounded

While this may seem counterintuitive, admissions officers look for passionate individuals who have been committed to these passions in meaningful ways. A student who has focused significant time and energy on one or two extracurriculars and found ways to make a positive impact on their community through these activities will have a much better chance of getting admitted than the student who is simply a “member” of 10 different clubs, but hasn’t really done anything. One of the most common college application mistakes that students fall into is attempting to highlight too many things. This essentially ends up highlighting nothing. Lack of a clear, focused passion can end up being a weakness. Remember, there is some truth to the saying - “Jack of all trades, master of none!”

10. Vague Achievements

There are opportunities for you to show admissions officers your most significant high school contributions. In some cases, this might be an arts portfolio; in others, it’s a research paper you helped author; at the very least, it’s something you describe in one of your essays or others describe in your letters of recommendation. Specific anecdotes throughout your application make all the difference between a vague and abstract interest, and one that is brimming with commitment and potential. Be specific or you’ll likely stay sitting in the pile!

11. Inappropriate Behavior

In the admissions process, you never know who is on the other side reading your application. It is extremely risky to present controversial views or reference misbehavior. While it is important to have a strong sense of self and show independent thinking, it’s best to stay away from sensitive topics and avoid emphasizing personal disregard for others.

12. Sounding Pretentious

Your application should be written in your most articulate, but also authentic voice. Tossing in random SAT words that you really don’t know how to use isn’t impressive. It makes you look like a poser! Be genuine and be yourself.

13. Exaggerations

The most common exaggerations usually appear on the Activities List. Don’t inflate your title and definitely don’t stretch the number of hours you devote to an activity. Yes, admissions officers know how to count and will add up your hours if they seem questionable! Unrealistic content and numbers leave a bad impression - be honest!

14. Failing to Demonstrate Why You’re a Good Fit

MIT likes hands-on learners who love math and science; Swarthmore appreciates applicants who are passionate about learning (a bit of quirkiness helps too); Stanford students drive significant change in their communities. Whatever school you hope to enroll in, you need to understand the culture on campus and indicate how you’d contribute once you arrive. If you fail to show how you’ll vibe with the community, admissions officers will question your intentions.

15. Lack of Application Cohesion

To ensure your application stands out from the crowd, think about how you’re marketing yourself to admissions officers. “Check the box candidates” are often lost in the pile, while applicants with clear stories and passions rise to the top. Make sure your application is focused and follows the idea of an “application persona.” Admissions officers need to be able to remember you and your interests, and crafting an application persona can help distinguish you.

16. Not Taking the Process Seriously!

The bottom line is, all sections of your application matter. Each part needs to be thoroughly reviewed and edited many, many times. Silly college application mistakes like typos, faulty capitalization, erroneous punctuation, the wrong school in an essay, etc. are just not okay! When admissions officers read 1,000 student files over the course of an application season, they look for students who care and put a lot of effort into the application. While applicants aren’t expected to be flawless, it’s easy to tell when an application was just thrown together, and that won’t result in good news for the student.

Avoid these college application mistakes and you'll be one of the lucky few who receives the thrilling "Congratulations!" letter. Start strategizing how to build your profile and shape your application today.

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