3 Major College Application Mistakes You’re Probably Making

Margaret Lipman
Mar 17, 2021

For many high school seniors, the college application process sometimes seems like it will never end. Between choosing colleges, writing essays, asking for recommendations, and figuring out financial aid options, it’s a serious dose of adulthood that many students aren’t fully prepared for.    Luckily, there are many helpful guides and tips to make the application process more manageable and less overwhelming. Even so, it’s easy to make mistakes on your application – or to forget essential steps or deadlines.   Check out these three suggestions for how to avoid some of the most common college application mistakes, and give yourself the best possible chance of receiving that much-coveted acceptance letter.   student talking to her mentor outside Photo by @Plotulit via Twenty20

Think carefully about your recommendations – and give your recommenders plenty of time

Having strong recommendation letters is an essential component of any successful college application, but deciding whom to ask to write those recommendations is not always straightforward.  

Don't just ask the nicest teacher you know

The biggest college application mistake a lot of students make is asking the nicest/their favorite teacher for a recommendation letter.  

You may be tempted to ask any teacher who seems approachable and is likely to say nice things about you. Or you may want to ask a teacher whose class you’re acing because of course they’ll praise your academic abilities. 

  However, college admissions boards may be expecting more than that.  

Do ask the teacher who knows you best both in and outside of the classroom

In your recommendation, they’ll want to see evidence of how you have developed as a learner and as a person. So the best teacher to ask isn’t necessarily the one giving you the best grade, but rather the one who has watched you struggle, ask for help, work hard, and demonstrate your commitment to succeeding in a subject that you find difficult.   It’s even better if you can ask a teacher who is also familiar with your interests outside the classroom. This could be a teacher who’s also a coach or a club mentor, as they’ll be able to write about you as a well-rounded person, and will likely have more anecdotes to include.    It’s also possible that a teacher may decline to write a recommendation for you. This could be because they are simply too busy, because they don’t know you well enough, or because they feel they wouldn’t be able to write an honest yet flattering recommendation.  

Be ready to be turned down

Be prepared for potential disappointment, and have a list of other teachers whom you could ask instead. And, of course, make sure that your choice of recommenders matches the college’s guidelines – some will ask for a teacher, a counselor, or both.  

Give your recommender plenty of time to accept/decline and write a strong letter

Whoever you ask to write your recommendation letters, the most important thing is to ask respectfully and give them plenty of time. A month is a good guideline, although the entire summer break is even better.    The longer you give them to prepare the recommendation – and, ideally, to meet with you in person at least once – the better the recommendation is likely to be, and the more time your teacher will devote to making it personal and unique.    brunette female discussing plans with her mentor Photo by @galinkazhi via Twenty20

Don’t wait until you’ve applied to start planning how you’ll pay for college

Figuring out how you’ll pay for college is just as important as putting together the perfect application. It’s a conversation that you’ll want to have with your parents as early as possible to find out what your options are.   Financial considerations may have a significant impact on which colleges and universities you end up applying to, so it’s essential to discuss funding options as soon as you can.   For example, your parents may be prepared to financially support you if you attend an in-state college or university. But if you have your hopes set on an out-of-state or private institution, you may need to start thinking about student loans  

Fill out the FAFSA early

Regardless of your family’s financial situation, filling out the FAFSA form in the fall of your senior year will give you the best chance of receiving all of the federal financial aid to which you are entitled. Just like your college applications, the FAFSA requires time to complete. The FAFSA must be an accurate snapshot of your family’s finances, so make sure to work with your parents to get it filled in early   In addition to federal aid, there are many other types of financial assistance available. It’s a good idea to explore all of these options before making any decisions about which colleges you may or may not be able to afford.  

Grants and scholarships from your desired

Many colleges and universities offer their own grants and scholarships to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, so contacting the financial aid office early on is a good move.  

Explore discounted tuition options

If you are a strong student, you might get discounted tuition or even a full ride to specific less-competitive colleges and universities that want to attract top academic achievers.  

Apply for work-study jobs

Securing a work-study job on campus is another fantastic way to offset the cost of your education while also developing important skills and potentially opening the door to future interests and career opportunities.  

Apply for a variety of scholarships from third-party sites and within the community

Last but not least, applying to a variety of scholarships is another important way to help reduce the cost of a college education.   Although the thought of completing multiple scholarship applications probably doesn’t sound very appealing, scholarship platforms such as Bold.org make it easy to create a single profile and apply to multiple scholarships in just a few clicks.   You’ll also find scholarships on Bold.org that you won’t see on any other websites, as individual philanthropists or organizations have specifically donated them.   Don't forget to check if local businesses in your community have scholarship opportunities available! Simply go in, call, or email to ask.   female student proofreading essay for school Photo by @JulieK via Twenty20

Ask a parent or older sibling to read over your application

No matter how many times you’ve read and reread your application, having another pair of eyes look it over is invariably a good decision to avoid any easy mistakes.   Perhaps there’s a word that you’ve unknowingly been using incorrectly (remember, spell-check isn’t enough to catch many types of errors!), or you’ve accidentally included the name of the wrong college in your essay.   Besides picking up on the little things you may have missed, asking a parent or older sibling to read your application will give you a fresh perspective on what you’ve written, and how it’s likely to come across to the admissions panel. You may also receive some valuable feedback that you can use to improve your essays or articulate a point more clearly.    As with everything related to college admissions, you’ll want to leave plenty of time for this.   Make sure to give your parent or sibling several days to thoroughly look over your application, rather than asking at the last minute.   Be open-minded and receptive about their feedback, although you’ll ultimately make the final decisions about word choice and what should or shouldn’t be included.  

Recommended Articles

Never miss the insider info again

Think of our newsletter as a way to save you money in all your years to come. We have the inspo, the tips, and the experience to get you educated, smarter.
By clicking this button, you agree to College Life Today Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.