Avoid These Big College Application Mistakes

Admissions staffers from across the U.S. tell you what not to do when applying to college.

Don’t let easily avoidable mistakes such as poor grammar or procrastination derail your college admissions chances.
By + More

Emily Simmons, Associate dean of admissions, Emory University 

Asking for information easily found:
When you're visiting colleges or meeting a visiting admissions counselor, ask for information you won't be able to find out anywhere else: the personality of the campus, the counselor's favorite things about the school. 

If you're asking us about test scores, it sounds like you haven't done your research or like you're asking a question just to ask a question, maybe because your parents told you to. We're not keeping track of who asks ridiculous questions. But if you ask thoughtful questions, it's a chance to wow us.

[Check out 10 tips for an effective college visit.] 

Henry Broaddus, Dean of admission, College of William and Mary 

Giving colleges what you think they want:
Please, please don't give us the personal statement that opens with a couple of minutes left in the game and ends with how winning isn't everything or how you learned the value of teamwork! 

Or the classic service trip essay that's about how everyone can make a difference. Or how if everyone just rolled up their sleeves and worked together we could solve everything. We're a lot more interested in the rough edges. Tell us something original. 

Chris Muñoz,Vice president for enrollment, Rice University 

Writing a one-size-fits-all essay:
If you write an essay for a university, and then you write that essay again and it's just a matter of changing the name of the university, then it's probably going to be a poor essay. And yes, we have gotten students who forget to change "Northwestern" to "Rice." 

It's not just about name-checking a faculty member or academic program, either. How does a faculty member's work speak to you as an applicant? Why, specifically, have you chosen us? Demonstrating true interest and care can make a difference on the margin. And when you're talking about universities that admit under 20 percent of applicants, you may need it. 

Sarah Richardson, Director of admissions and scholarships, Creighton University 

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.