As discussed in my previous post, application inflation seems to be hitting ever greater heights. With the online Common App allowing students to apply to 15+ schools at the click of a button, it can be hard for applicants to gauge their real chances at a particular school: there’s no way to know just how many of those 40,000 applicants are serious contenders. With so many competing for so few slots, sometimes getting rejected isn’t a matter of doing anything in particular wrong. It’s just “great kid, but only if room” – which, of course, there isn’t.
That said, there are still some specific, common reasons for why the college application process can produce less than stellar results. So if you want to know what NOT to do, I offer you the following list of 10 ways to get rejected from college.
1) Apply to too many reach schools
One of the biggest traps many high-achieving applicants fall into is to assume that if they throw in lots and lots of applications to hyper-selective schools, eventually they’ll hit the bull’s eye and get accepted to one of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.
Applying to 10 schools, each of which has a 10% overall acceptance rate, does not raise your probability of admission to 100%! In fact, unless there is something in your application that clearly sets you apart from the 40,000+ other applicants, your chances are very likely below 10%.
You need to be realistic when making your college list: a few carefully considered reach schools, a few more “likelies,” and one or two backups that you can afford and that you’d willingly attend. 15 reaches and one safety is just not a smart strategy, regardless of how many APs you’ve taken.
Not infrequently, strong students who haven’t been given a lot of guidance will apply to a bunch of top-20 schools and their state university, with nothing in between, and then have no choice but to attend their safety school. But it doesn’t have to be Harvard vs. Podunk State. It could also be Case Western, or the University of Pittsburgh, or Loyola.
2) Apply to schools you don’t know a lot about
Those “why this college?” essays are there for a reason: schools want to make sure you’ve done your homework and are a good fit for the institution.
It’s ok if you’re undecided about a major, but there should be some alignment between your demonstrated interests in terms of your transcript, extracurriculars, and essays, and a school’s offerings. If you’re set on an undergrad Business major for example, you probably shouldn’t be looking at schools that don’t offer one.
Colleges want to be wanted (they also need to protect their yield rate). Expressing your undying love for a school won’t necessarily get you in, but if you give them signals that you’re not really interested, they’ll probably reciprocate in kind. This goes for your safety schools as well.
3) Take it easy senior year
It’s very tempting to give in to senioritis early, but one thing that colleges absolutely do not want to see is that you’re using senior year as an excuse to slack off. If your sophomore and junior grades were borderline, a very strong showing in challenging classes first semester senior year can help push you into the admit pile; a less rigorous schedule will do the opposite.
As a general rule, selective colleges like to see five core classes senior year (English, math, history, lab science, foreign language). There is some flexibility based on your interests (e.g., if you’re a prospective STEM major who has already taken an AP foreign language, you can probably drop Spanish and double up on sciences instead), but if your schedule is filled with electives like journalism instead of AP Lit and photography rather than physics, you probably won’t be pleasantly surprised when April rolls around.
In addition, colleges look at the trajectory of your grades as much as your GPA. Even if your overall average is high, a slip in grades during junior/senior year can be a cause for concern. Ideally, as your classes get harder, your grades should improve; a decline in academic achievement will call into question your ability to transition to a much more challenging workload in college.
4) Overestimate the importance of grades and test scores
If you look at the list of factors that the most selective colleges weigh when looking at applications, you’ll see that most rank applicants’ transcripts (rigor of coursework and grades) and test scores as the most heavily weighted factors.
Alas, this can be somewhat misleading. At top schools, stellar grades and scores are a minimum requirement. They will get your application looked at – they will not get you accepted. Provided you have that part down, your recommendations, essays, extracurriculars, and overall “fit” with the school will become the deciding factors.
5) Overestimate your GPA
What many applicants do not realize is that most colleges will recalculate your GPA based on only your core academic classes and without extra weight for AP’s (they’ll consider the overall rigor of your classes holistically). Those A’s in gym and drama? Irrelevant. Your 3.8 might actually be more like a 3.5.
6) Assume that high scores will compensate for weak grades
When colleges are willing to be flexible in terms of applicants’ statistics, it’s usually on the “scores” side – they’re usually more willing to take a chance applicants with slightly lower scores and great grades than they are on ones in the opposite situation. They know that a transcript represents achievement across a period of years, and that someone who’s done consistently well in challenging classes will probably be ok in college. On the flip side, if they see a student with 1400+ SATs and a 2-point-something GPA, their inclination will be to label that person a slacker.
7) Don’t take the essays seriously
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a great writer – admissions officers aren’t expecting you to be the next Hemingway. That’s not what the essay is about (and, to be frank, most essays aren’t particularly noteworthy). What colleges do want is some basic insight into what makes you tick as a human being, as well as some reassurance that you’re the sort of person your future classmates, roommates, and professors will actually want to have around for the next four years.
They also want to see that you exhibit good judgment and care enough to present yourself well. What you don’t write is in some ways as important as what you do write. Colleges will admit you in spite of an unexceptional essay, but they will reject you for an extremely poor one.
So: no bragging, no putting other people down, no profanity, no talking about how you’re so crippled by anxiety that you can’t leave the house without carrying the stuffed bunny your grandma gave you when you were five, no submitting things riddled with typos (if you don’t want to show your parents, at least show your English teacher), and – this should go without saying – absolutely no plagiarizing.
Oh, and obey the word limits: 300 words means 300 words, not 350 or 400. Admissions officers have thousands of these things to get through.
8) Wait until the last minute to finish/submit your applications
If you are racing to finish your supplements, you will almost inevitably make mistakes, and you will not have enough time to catch them.
Besides, all sorts of things can go wrong if you try to submit your applications at the last minute. The Common App site can slow down, or freeze, or crash right before midnight on the day of the deadline, just as you go to hit the “submit” button. (Been there, seen that, never want to witness it again.)
Believe me when I say that you do not want to call a bunch of admissions offices and explain that although your application is marked January 2nd, it shouldn’t be counted as late because you technically submitted it on the 1st.
Tip: If you can write your essays the summer before your senior year, you will be WAY ahead of the game.
9) Don’t consider your financial aid status
Look, one of the unfortunate realities of college admissions in the United States is that money counts. With the exception of a relatively small number of schools that have extremely high endowments, many selective colleges cannot afford to admit an entire freshman class without taking financial aid into account. If you’re a reasonably competitive but not exceptional applicant and need significant financial aid, you may get passed over. This is why the financial aid conversation should happen before you start the application process.
10) Fail to explain a lapse in grades
Admissions officers know that life isn’t always perfect, and if you did have a family/medical situation during high school that caused your grades to drop temporarily, you should take advantage of the space the Common App provides to explain it. You should also make sure your guidance counselor understands the situation and is prepared to address it as well. Without an explanation of the extenuating circumstances, colleges will be forced to speculate and may draw false conclusions.