Trumping up your extracurriculars: We want to know where a student's passions lie, and genuine interests tend not to appear suddenly in senior year. I'd rather see quality over quantity.
And students need to help us develop an understanding of the personal significance, not just with the essay, but when submitting information about extracurricular involvements. When they detail the amount of time that they spend with those activities, as well as any leadership roles they've taken on, that allows us to understand the level of commitment.
Kelly A. Walter
Associate vice president and executive director of admissions, Boston University
Failing to check curriculum requirements: Students today often begin their college searches during freshman and sophomore year, and they do an exceptional job of learning about majors and general admission requirements. But they don't dig down that extra level, to specific curriculum requirements – it's the one area of the application process students pay the least attention to, in my experience.
For example, we expect students wanting admission to our engineering program to enroll in physics and calculus in high school. There's nothing more disappointing than to review an application of a student who might otherwise be competitive for admission and realize she is ineligible because she didn't take the required courses.
Karen S. Giannino
Senior associate dean of admission, Colgate University
Forcing colleges to fill in the blanks: If there's something on your transcript or in your activities list that would raise a question, answer the question. If maybe you've gone all the way up to Honors French 3, and then you're not taking a language senior year, that's a question for an admissions officer: Why didn't she continue to take French?
Maybe it was a scheduling conflict. Tell us, so we don't just assume you decided to take it easy senior year. And get some adult – not your parents – to look at the file you've put together and invite them to ask you questions about it. It doesn't have to be an adult in the know. Sometimes naive questions are the best ones.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.