What Are Some Common Problems Found in College Applications?

Exaggerated extracurriculars and over-polished essays are just two things that can raise eyebrows.

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While every admissions office is different, there are plenty of common red flags that essay readers and application reviewers encounter every year. From typos to suspicious accomplishments (volunteering 100 hours per week, anyone?), there are some things every high school student should make sure their application avoids. This week, we asked the Unigo Expert Network:

Q: What are some common red flags that admissions officers often find in college applications?

A: Despite common beliefs, colleges look for positive traits in applicants.

Ralph Figueroa, director of college guidance, Albuquerque Academy A former boss of mine used to ask in committee, "Do you want to be this kid's roommate?" This is a personal process. Colleges are trying to build a community, so red flags about character—honesty, integrity, and behavior—can be extremely damaging. Admissions officers also look for things that are dissonant with the picture formed by the other pieces of the application. But applicants worry too much about "red flags." Admissions officers are seeking good qualities and traits—they want a reason to admit an applicant, not to deny. Show your true self and trust them to see the good.

[Learn more in the U.S. News applying to college guide.]

A: There aren't "common red flags"… but common mistakes that create red flags!

Nancy Meislahn, dean of admissions and financial aid, Wesleyan University Students should be sure that they don't leave blanks in their applications, figuratively or literally. Tell your story honestly and authentically. The clichés ring true: Leave no stone unturned and put all the cards on the table. Help the admissions officer understand how you came to be who you are and where you are headed—even if the road has a few bumps. It's way better to understand the challenges (and the triumphs) than to be left guessing!

[Get tips for starting the college application process.]

A: Two red flags are exaggerated extracurriculars and over polished essays.

Ralph Becker, Ivy College Prep, LLC Two common red flags are exaggerated extracurricular and over-polished essays. The University of California system has a "truth-in-application" program, which randomly samples a "statistically significant" number (around 1,000), to verify activity claims. Fewer than 1 percent of reviewed applications are cancelled.

Regarding essays, if the quality of one far exceeds what might be expected from a candidate, the admissions office will access an applicant's SAT essay (which is readily available online) for comparison purposes. If the essay really appears "DDI" ("Daddy did it"), the admissions office might request from a student a graded paper from a recent English or history class.

[Get more expert advice on writing college application essays.]

Visit the Unigo Expert Network for 20 more experts revealing admissions red-flags, and to have your own questions answered.