The very phrase “college admissions process” can send high schoolers into a spiral of stress, anxiety and uncertainty. It’s a daunting concept, and on top of getting the grades and being involved in extracurriculars to get into your dream school, you still have to jump through the application hoops. They can include anything from tons of essays or even interviews. It’s important to be aware of some subtle mistakes that can jeopardize the college process; these are mistakes that you may miss when you’re focused on the main parts of your application. Here are some of the most common errors most high school seniors make when they apply to college and how to avoid them.
1. You procrastinate
With the sheer number of tasks to check off when you apply to schools, it’s no wonder most seniors try to delay the inevitable as long as possible. But living in denial is only going to hurt you in the long run. According to Timothy Jaconette, a former admissions office employee at Stanford University and the founder of college admission consulting company Advanced Admit, it’s important to start the process early.
“If you wait until the deadline to write something, you may not be happy with your final outcome,” Jaconette explains. “I strongly believe the real key is to start on your application essays early and write multiple drafts of the essay. If you have a friend or professional admission coach who will hold you accountable for finishing your work early, you can create amazing essays.”
If you can, start preparing for college when you start high school. That way, you can go into your challenging courses with a goal and start building up your resume, adding depth as well as breadth. High school is a busy and exciting time, but also full of hard work. Make sure it isn’t wasted by procrastinating on your application and not doing your absolute best.
“Even though you have so much happening in high school, acing your application truly could improve your educational outcome,” Jaconette says. “You spent so many years of your life studying, why throw it all away with an imperfect set of application essays?”
In the end, starting your applications well before the deadline as well as being conscious of the application process before senior year can set you on the path to success and lower levels of stress.
2. You don’t know what you want
Applying to colleges can be especially overwhelming if you have no idea what you want out of your school and your overall university experience. Investigate a variety of schools, even if you don’t think they’re right for you, and decide what factors are most important to you.
How big do you want your school to be? Do you want Greek life? How about sports? Private or public? What geographic region? Actually thinking about these questions and why they matter to you will make the selection process far easier. Additionally, remember the real reason you’re going to college: to continue your education. No, you don’t have to know what you want to do with your life, but try to explore subjects that could be potentially interesting to you and that you would want to learn more about.
“Go onto Google Scholar or go to a local university library and find the academic journals of your favorite subject,” suggests Jaconette. “Read a few of those articles. Find some concepts that interest you. Talk about them with your friends, your teachers and anyone who will listen to you.”
This is essentially what you will do in your college courses, and if you find subjects that spark your curiosity, look for schools that value these subjects, too.
3. You apply to the wrong schools
Without knowing what you want, you’ll inevitably waste time applying to schools that just aren’t right for you. A school might sound good at first--maybe it has a great reputation or awesome sports teams--but that doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for you. According to Dr. Bari Norman, a certified educational planner and Co-Founder and President of Expert Admissions, students sometimes underestimate the importance of a good fit before applying.
“I think seniors often craft their lists without a true regard for the importance of fit--both in terms of the impact on admissions decisions and overall happiness once you're actually in college,” she says.
Jaconette also suggests looking for schools that match your academic interests, too. “Look for a school with the undergraduate program you actually need,” he explains. “For example, even though it is a famous school, UC Berkeley does not have a nursing program. It simply won't get you where you want to go if you are trying to be a nurse anesthetist.”
You don’t have to go into college with a clear career path in mind, but if there’s something you’re even slightly considering, don’t limit yourself by going to a school that doesn’t even offer a program for it.
4. You take all advice personally
There’s plenty of information about college admissions, but sometimes you have to navigate the information overload to follow the advice that best fits you.
“There's a lot of information out there about college admissions,” Dr. Norman says. “It's a good thing because you have an enormous amount of information at your fingertips; and it's a not so good thing because it's a lot to sift through, it's not always accurate, and because advice and strategy is so individualized.”
Read everything with a grain of salt and think of the big picture. Is this relevant to you? “You can read something, and even if it's good, solid information, it doesn't mean it's the right advice for you,” Dr. Norman says.
Also, you probably are receiving advice from many different people. While they might have good intentions, make sure their stories are relevant to you, especially since they may not necessarily be based on expert knowledge. It’s important to surround yourself with supportive and knowledgeable advisors who have your best interests at heart.
5. You don’t take advantage of your resources
Your college counselor can offer you tons of valuable information and assistance. Most high schools have one or more college counselors whose primary job is to be there for you—to answer your questions, give you advice and make this process tailored to your specific needs.
“Students should have open and consistent communication with a trusted college advisor,” says Dr. Norman. “There will be a lot of voices out there giving you advice about this process; you need to know who you trust most.”
It’s your future, so it’s your choice and your responsibility to take charge of the admissions process. Just don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it. Not only are there advisors at your high school willing to help, but there are plenty of college admissions coaches and consultants ready to guide you. Admissions professionals, as well as admissions officers, want you to succeed.
“If you read all the emails I read from admissions professionals across the nation, you would learn about the amazing, selfless and truly caring nature of admissions counselors in America,” says Jaconette. “Many gave up high paying careers to help students find a fantastic match.”
Counter to what you may believe, they really are on your side and are trying to match you to a school best suited to you. They work behind the scenes to help you succeed at their schools.
6. You don’t act like yourself
How are you going to end up at the right school if you pretend to be someone else during the admissions process?
According to Dr. Norman, students will try to overperform in their essays, but it just creates writing that feels forced and inauthentic. Her one piece of knowledge to give to all high school seniors: “Let your guard down in your essay." Your essays are your chance to show who you are as a person, outside of your grades and your resume. Make sure it is a genuine portrayal.
As stressful as the college admissions process is, hopefully you now have an idea of what not to do and can then focus on what you need to do. Get a head start and ask for help from your support system if you need it. And in the end, if you’re looking over your application materials and wondering if it will be enough to get you into your dream school, remember to stay true yourself. You don’t have to have flawless grades and a laundry list of clubs and volunteer work as long as you apply to schools best suited to your needs.
In the words of Dr. Norman, “Perfection is rarely interesting or compelling.”