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Articles / Applying to College / 10 Last-Minute Mistakes Every College Applicant Should Avoid Making

10 Last-Minute Mistakes Every College Applicant Should Avoid Making

Torrey Kim
Written by Torrey Kim | Oct. 2, 2020
10 Last-Minute Mistakes Every College Applicant Should Avoid Making

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College deadlines are quickly approaching, which means many students are scrambling to submit their applications, essays, transcripts and everything else in a race against the clock. Unfortunately, this can also mean that students may make mistakes during the mad dash toward the deadline. Today we're sharing 10 common mistakes that experts see in college applications so you can avoid making them.

Dramatically Changing Essays, College Lists at the Last Minute

Panicking, overediting and second guessing can sometimes lead students to make rash decisions at the last minute, says Antonio Cruz of college admissions consulting firm Ivy Scholars. "Students who have fine and well-crafted essays will sometimes panic and hastily re-edit or revise what they have for the worse. Revise essays with an editor until an essay is good, then resist the urge to meddle," he advises.

In addition, as deadlines approach, students sometimes significantly change their college lists at the last minute, which can result in sloppy writing. "Many schools have specific essays or requirements, and rushing to complete these at the last minute will result in undue stress and lower quality work," he adds.

Not Following up on Missing Items in Your File

After you apply to college, you'll typically receive a link to check your admissions portal, which you should do frequently to ensure that your file is complete by the deadline. If anything is missing, you should follow up immediately.

After you apply to college, you'll typically receive a link to check your admissions portal, which you should do frequently to ensure that your file is complete by the deadline. If anything is missing, you should follow up immediately.

"In many cases, there's a very small window for follow-up, so you have to stay on top of this," says Dr. Michele Hernandez, principal with Top Tier Admissions and a former admission officer at Dartmouth College. "When I was at Dartmouth, the deadline was November 1 and we were done reading by Thanksgiving, so it was a small time scale. You don't want to be too late."

Many admission officers won't disqualify a file for things like a late recommendation letter or something out of your control, she says, "but having said that, it's important to send things early. For instance, a late transcript would be a significant issue. Guidance counselors have huge case loads, so the earlier you ask your counselor to send these things, the better."

Failing to Carefully Read Instructions

Students shouldn't rush when reading colleges' application instructions, says Chloe Rothstein, M.S.Ed., an admissions consultant with College Bound in Potomac, Md., and a former admission officer at Johns Hopkins University.

"For example, when applying to Penn State on the Common Application, you can choose to apply either under their 'Early Action' or 'Rolling' plan. Many people might think that rolling comes before Early Action and gets you an admissions decision more quickly. But with Penn State, it's quite the opposite, so we recommend applying under Early Action. When you are filling out the Penn State portion of the Common Application, it explains this in the right margin, but it is possible to miss that explanation. So go slowly, read all instructions, and double- and triple-check before submitting."

Missing out on Prerequisites

Some colleges require students to have taken three years of the same foreign language, while others might require a visual or performing arts course, even if it doesn't relate to your intended major. Missing these prerequisites can sink your chances of getting into that school, so it's important to check the requirements at your goal schools via their websites, their Common Data Set or by inquiring. Some schools have specific rules for certain majors or student groups. For instance, the University of California schools have special requirements that out-of-state applicants must meet. In some cases, a college may understand if you've missed a prerequisite, but it will require some work on your part.

"Universities appreciate issues of accessibility, and no school wants to discriminate against a student with regional differences," says Sasha Chada of college admissions consulting firm Ivy Scholars. "So you may be able to say, 'I wanted to do this, I understand it's important, I tried to pursue it outside of class with my own education, but couldn't make it work at school and I'd still love for you to consider me.'"

In these cases, you should ask your guidance counselor to support you by explaining in their recommendation letter why you were unable to meet a certain requirement. Then fill out the Additional Information section of the Common App and note the issues you faced, along with the fact that your counselor will be mentioning them as well. "That kind of coordination on the application is incredibly underestimated," he says.

If you weren't able to take a required class, sign up for an online version, ideally one that will grant you credit, he adds. "You can let them know that logistics got in the way so that's why you didn't fulfill a requirement, and by the time you're accepted, you will have taken the class. This allows the admission officer to argue for you, because often they can't make these decisions on their own. I have seen this work with students. One who had no in-school extracurriculars explained how her school had experienced shootings and even provided a link to an article about the violence there. She noted that this was why she did extracurriculars outside of school, and she ended up getting into Dartmouth." He notes that this underscores the important of planning early, "because there's only so much you can do at the last minute."

Avoiding Specificity in Essays

Although some students want to copy and paste the same essay for every prompt, that will lead to vague and generic essays that may not work, says Irene Schindler, application and essay specialist with College Bound in Potomac, Md. "Being specific will make your writing pop off the page," she says. "Instead of writing, 'I would love to explore a variety of research topics related to history,' you might say 'There's so much I want to learn, from understanding more about the lives of African-Americans during the Reconstruction Era to exploring the world of Pre-Code Hollywood movies.'"

Giving up After the ED Cycle

Some students who apply Early Decision (ED) won't get into their first choice school, so they then give up on the college process, Cruz says. "Even though they still have a good chance of getting into a great school in the regular decision round, they get too demoralized after the first rejection." This is why it's essential to create a strong list of schools and to apply to more even after you've submitted your ED application.

Forgetting to Thank Those Who Helped You

It's likely that you've had help from a handful of people along the way during your admissions journey, and you should express your gratitude to them. "Seniors often miss opportunities because they ignore niceties," says admissions consultant Kristin J. Webb-Hollering. "In a world of text mania, a simple email to thank an admissions rep, an SAT coach, a favorite teacher, etc. can make a world of difference. Seniors forget to follow up with those advisors that can make a difference in the status of their application — and that's something that is easy to do."

Forgetting to Focus on HS Courses

Schools still care about senior-year grades, and won't accept the excuse that students were overwhelmed by their college applications, Cruz says. "They also won't overlook students taking easier classes to try and skate by in their senior year."

Not Remembering to Check Email

Although checking email may be an afterthought for you, it should be at top of mind during application season, Webb-Hollering says.

"Seniors will Snapchat, Instagram message, and text to their heart's content, but do they look every day at their emails? No, and that's a problem. They may miss out on fee waivers, scholarships, interview opportunities and more. They need to click, open and read their emails — daily."

Failing to Include a Safety School on Your List

Although you may be enamored with the most elite colleges, that doesn't mean you should avoid applying to safety schools. "It's fine to fly from the high trapeze; doing so without a net is foolish no matter how high your skill level," Cruz says.

What counts as a safety school can vary greatly depending upon the student, he notes. "If you have a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SATs, use an honors college at a state school as your safety. The education they provide will be incredibly good, and the merit scholarships they offer are often generous. These can be a hedge against a sudden loss of family income. Students with slightly lower scores and grades should still consider local or regional public schools for safeties, as many have very strong programs."

He adds that applying to a safety school isn't settling, or deferring your dreams. "It's acknowledging that top schools have become insanely competitive, and thousands of qualified candidates are turned away every year. Having a safety school is insurance against this chance. When a school's admissions rates are below 10 percent, it always counts as a reach, no matter how high your scores or grades are. There are thousands of students with perfect grades and test scores, more than there are spaces for them."

Written by

Torrey Kim

Torrey Kim

College Admissions Expert

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