Common College Application Errors
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Nervous workEvery year we help thousands of students through the college application process, I learn new lessons, collect new observations, and come away with insights that I can use to help the following year’s cohort. By now, however, I have been able to identify a common set of errors that students and their families make every year when completing their applications. I batch these errors into four distinct categories, and each ascending category of error is significantly more harmful than the one preceding it – like a tornado or a hurricane.

CATEGORY I ERRORS: Grammar, spelling and data entry

From a formatting point of view, these errors are irritating because they take a great deal of time to find, and look simply terrible. Misspelled names, incorrect addresses, forgotten social security numbers, missing grades and tests scores. I’ve seen it all. Some students do not know their own parents level of education. Additionally, student personal statements may be rife with horrible grammar, poor formatting choices, or just plain wrong spelling. Students may not be aware of their residency or citizenship status.

Any one of these errors, by itself, probably does not doom an application, but they are easily the most common errors and are exasperating for consultants like me to wade through, and also annoying for admissions committees to deal with.

So, as you gear up for the application process, remember to go slow, be accurate, and double check everything for completeness – your grades, your courses, your test scores (the date you took the test). Everything needs to be accurate. Why take any chances?

CATEGORY II ERRORS: Activities, awards and their descriptions

Every ThinkTank Learning consultant you speak with will emphasize the importance of extracurricular activities that are intrinsically meaningful in and of themselves. These activities create value within the community or they demonstrate a student’s wonderful personal qualities. Activities also need to be relevant to a student’s college major and/or professional interests.

Students who commit Category II errors have neither type of activity. Instead, their activities profile consists of scattered, unrelated volunteering and community service, or cliched activities that many other students have, or they have no interests that support their intended major or professional interest. A poor activities profile isn’t just irritating, it can also be damaging to your admissions chances.

Another type of Category II error is a poor description of a given activity. The UC application asks students to identify the organization with which the student was affiliated and provide a brief description of duties. These descriptions need to be concise and informative. If you volunteered at the California Pacific Medical Center’s Department of Radiology, you need to describe what exactly you did within that department. The more detailed and informative the description of your activity, the better.

Avoid Errors on Your Application!

CATEGORY III ERRORS: Personal statements

The UC freshman applicant prompt invites students to “Describe the world you come from — for example, your family community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.”

A personal statement that does not answer the entire prompt is a perfect example of a Category III error. I have read personal statements that beautifully and articulately answer the first half of the prompt above (“describe the world you come from”) and then fail miserably to answer the second half (“tell us how your world has shaped your dreams …”). You don’t get much credit for finishing half an exam, and you won’t get much credit from the admissions committee for writing half a personal statement, either!

Even worse is an essay that fails to address the prompt at all, and unfortunately I have read many of those all too often. I frequently talk to parents and students who are eager to “start early” on their personal statements. Ironically, starting early often fails to do anything helpful. I encourage students not to type out a rambling, incoherent, hurried first draft, but rather to think about their lives, their worlds, and to ask themselves what truly are their dreams and aspirations. I believe that a student who genuinely ponders their college personal statement answers, before they type a single letter, is better prepared to write an excellent essay that addresses the prompt than a student who hurries over to the computer and types early and mindlessly.


Incomplete personal statements, hurried personal statements, statements that do not address the prompt – can be the death knell for your college application.

CATEGORY IV ERRORS: College selection strategy

Finally, we have arrived at the most damaging category of college application errors – choosing the wrong schools. If you are not careful, this error can doom your application before you enter a word on the page. I wish I could say that students and families are not usually guilty of this error, but I can’t.

The unavoidable truth is that too many students and their families glance at US News & World Report rankings of the top national universities, and choose schools to apply to on that basis alone. There are countless problems with that strategy but the primary issue is that it is much too simplistic. The USNWR is but one of several publications that rank colleges, for starters, and each publication ranks schools differently. And, there are literally hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States, many of them are more appropriate options for students than what is shown on US News & World Report.

I wrote an article last month about how to develop a college list. In that article, I encouraged students to identify a clear, overarching goal that they want to achieve. The colleges that students apply to should align with that goal and help them move towards it, not be the goal in and of themselves.

If you want to have a successful college application experience, remember these four categories and do your utmost to avoid them. And, should you think that one of these categories is present in your application, speak to a professional consultant who will be able to spot the issue and help you back onto the right track.