College Admissions Guidance

Blog posts about college admissions topics such as essays, extracurriculars,  planning, mental health, etc.

The 10-critical mistakes of college admissions

application strategy essays future planning junior year senior year Apr 21, 2021
  1. Starting late
  2. Put off college visits
  3. Only apply in-state $$ concerns
  4. Getting essays critiqued by a language expert
  5. Read on below.. :-) 
1. Starting late: Not giving themselves enough time for the planning, search and application 
  • Don’t wait until the summer after your Junior year to start college planning- even if your high school doesn’t really focus on it until the beginning of senior year. While your junior year is busy with current schoolwork, remember that you’ll still have coursework in the fall of your senior year and then you will be even more crunched for time. The earlier you start, the less any one assignment will derail you.
  • With thousands of schools to choose from you want to be sure you have enough time to really research good-fit schools and majors. You will need time to visit colleges you are potentially interested in and compile a broad college list consisting of “likely,'' “probable” and “reach” schools. 
  • You may need to utilize the summer before your senior year to enhance your resume with coursework, community service, work or leadership opportunities. You want to get as much of the college process completed before you begin your senior year, so you can focus on your academics first semester - because those are grades that will affect your application. 
  • By the start of senior year you need to know what essays you will be needing to write and have made a good head-start on those. You want to have already taken the SAT or ACT tests, possibly more than once and know whether you need to take it one last time in the fall of your senior year. If you are applying in the visual or performing arts in particular, you need to have created your portfolio, audition videos, or plan for live auditions, following each college’s specific requirements. 
  • In addition you have to get all your letters of recommendation, and order all your testing and transcripts to be sent to the colleges on your list. Keeping track of deadlines is crucial - especially if you are planning to apply early decision or early action to your schools.
2. Putting off their college visits until after they have applied and only visiting schools where they've been accepted
  • Visiting colleges helps to clarify what kind of school you feel most comfortable in. While websites and videos can be valuable, you can get a great deal more information visiting campuses for yourself that can then shape your best college list. By spending time on a campus you can rule out schools that you really wouldn’t want to go to, so you don’t waste both time and money applying there.
  • Many colleges keep track of what is called “demonstrated interest”, and visiting is one of the things they look at to determine it. Colleges want students who want them. By exhibiting your interest in a school you may increase your chances of acceptance.  
  • Once you are accepted you can revisit on Accepted Students Day. At that time you can get more in-depth exposure to the school, to professors of different academic departments and their special facilities, and the advantages of each school. You also get to meet other students who have been accepted, not just visiting, and can get a better sense of how you fit in with that population.
  • Remember, a good college visit should include an information session, an official tour and some time observing, or better yet, talking to current students in the cafeteria or student union. A drive through the campus is NOT a VISIT- it does not show demonstrated interest. It also does not afford you the opportunity to talk to representatives from different departments. These could include the office of admission, financial aid, athletics, the office of disability, or the academic department of your proposed major.
​3. Assuming that state schools are their most cost-effective option
  • Many students and their families believe that private colleges will automatically cost them more than their local state colleges. This is because they look at the “sticker price”- or published costs for tuition and room and board - without considering the unique circumstances of their financial needs and academic merit.
  • Private schools may have higher official costs but often have significantly greater endowments and are able to offer scholarships for both merit and financial need. For example, if you are a strong academic student with significant financial need you can often have a major portion of your college costs covered by the institution through both merit and need based aid. Some private colleges determine merit aid based on your GPA. 
  • Many states are financially strapped and the state schools therefore are usually not able to offer the kind of institutional financial assistance that a private school can. While some states provide a significantly reduced cost of tuition for their state’s residents, this does not affect the costs of room and board, books and other college fees. Other states have a sliding scale for tuition for state residents, but again this does not apply to other college costs. And, the cost of attending a state school as an out-of-state resident is often close to the cost of a private institution. 
  • Filling out the FAFSA (free application for student aid) will tell you your EFC (estimated family contribution), but it is up to each college to decide what they will offer to meet your needs. Your  financial package may include scholarships and grants, which you do not have to pay back; work-study that will involve jobs where students can earn some money while at college; and loans, which you will have to pay back. 
  • Here’s an example of one student who applied to both private and state schools. Based on her same FAFSA information and high school transcript, one of the private colleges offered her $38,000 a year, while an out-of-state public institution offered her only $4000 a year. The net price of attendance at the private school would have been about $10,000/year while the cost at the state school would have been $34,000/year.
  • As you can see, the final costs can vary greatly. You may end up paying less for an “expensive” private school than for a state school. ​
4. Relying solely on their English teacher or guidance counselor to review their college essay(s)

Your English teacher will mainly focus on the structure of your essay and can pick up on any grammatical mistakes. Your guidance counselor may often just make sure the essay is done to complete your application packet. However many of the biggest problems we see have to do with the subject and/or the tone of the essay, which can ruin an otherwise good application. 

The essay is an opportunity to present yourself in a personal and positive light. We have seen essays that come across as strident, neurotic, arrogant, whiny or just plain boring. We have had students who were told by a teacher that they    shouldn’t use humor at all.   Humor and a light touch can be very helpful.    No one wants to be brought down by a  college essay and there are way too many students writing about their parents’ divorce or their own eating disorder.  If you want to write about a difficult issue you have to be very careful to have it show how you overcame that problem and how that now serves you going forward, informing your decisions and the direction of your life. 
​In talking to many admissions counselors from various colleges, they tell us that they only have a few minutes to try and get a sense of each applicant.   Anything that can help you to distinguish yourself in a genuine and unique manner will help them to remember you and add to the evaluation of you as an applicant. 

Your essay from the very first sentence should grab the reader and make them want to know more.   Anything that is too predictable, like making the final three-point basket that won the game or how much you learned about other cultures on your 10 day overseas community service trip, may not enhance your application as an individual. 

Of course, your essay needs to be well-crafted with no grammatical or spelling errors or typos. However, be sure to show your essay to a few other adults who know you, besides your English teacher and guidance counselor, who can give you feedback about how you are coming across in your essay.  Does your voice come through? Does it speak to your strengths? Do you sound like someone they would want to spend time with? Remember, colleges are looking at how you can enhance their community and embrace what they have to offer. 

5. Assuming that their  applications are complete without receiving confirmation from the colleges
  • College applications need information from many different sources, such as guidance counselors, recommenders, testing sites, financial aid sites, and so on, before your application is even looked at and evaluated. Any delay or omission of a letter of recommendation, test score or transcript can result in a rejection because the deadline passed and the application was never read because it was incomplete.
  • We had one student who, before coming to work with us, was rejected by a college he had applied to ED (early decision). We discovered that his high school transcript was accidentally never sent by his high school guidance counselor. Because the application was never complete, the other parts of the application were never even looked at. The student, trying to be independent and working on his own, had not realized that all his information was not complete and had not contacted the college to check on his application when he hadn’t heard from them.  Once we researched other good college choices, he learned to be proactive and follow up through the online portals [their websites] with each college on his list. Subsequently he had several college acceptances to choose from.
  • Be vigilant. Be sure to check your email and the college portals for any messages requesting further information from you. If you are not absolutely positive about your application being complete, you should email or call the admissions counselor for your region to get clarification and confirmation. ​

6. Students and parents thinking that going to a community college and then transferring to a 4 year school is basically the same as starting out at a 4 year school, and would save money
  • There is value to living away from home on a campus for developing a student’s independence. For the “full college experience” living in the dorms and socializing in the evenings and weekends on an active campus of events, sports and clubs is important for one’s development. Students have a chance to establish social connections with peers and professors for 4 years. While there is some social life at community colleges, there are far fewer venues like college sports, Greek life, and extensive clubs. Since many students are part time and/or older and attend around their outside work commitments, there is not as tight a student life.​
  • Going to a community college requires more transitions academically, in both applications, education requirements and connecting with peers and professors. There are more rigid requirements at community college, which can often feel like a repetition of some high school classes. While no SAT is required for admission, there is the Accuplacer placement test which, if one does not score high enough, has the student taking remedial courses until they qualify for college level classes. Kids with learning disabilities, in particular, often cannot advance beyond remedial courses in the traditional testing model at community colleges; whereas 4 year colleges, especially liberal arts schools with more comprehensive learning programs, have more flexibility and support to help them advance and be successful.
  • Automatic acceptance into the flagship state college is not guaranteed. A student has to maintain a strong GPA in college. They may be offered another 4 year state school if they successfully complete their associates degree. If a student wants to go to a private college or state school not in their state, then they have to apply the same way they would have as freshmen. 
  • Graduation rates from community colleges are low - 13% graduate in 2 years for a seamless transition to a 4 year college, as opposed to 44% of students who graduate from a 4 year college in 4 years. Often the community college student does not access courses of real interest until much later in the process while many majors at 4 year schools need you to begin in the first year to complete one’s education in 4 years.
  • With regards to finances, while community college is much less expensive, a lot of scholarships for 4 year schools are for incoming freshmen. Transfer students do not have as great a chance of being offered large scholarships. If parents are financially strapped but the student is academically strong, 4 year colleges, especially private schools, often offer extensive financial assistance to cover a large percentage of college costs. Therefore, while cost might initially be less starting out at a community college, the total expenses for the student to obtain a bachelor’s degree might be equivalent or even greater than starting at a 4 year college. And it might take longer and the experience would not be equivalent.

7. Students only applying to colleges where their friends are applying
That’s a common issue that can really limit a student’s options. Each student should be focused on their academic and career interests, their learning styles, their strengths and weaknesses and the extracurriculars that they feel are important to them. Some of the factors to think about are urban vs. rural campus, large vs. small school, degree of social activism, religious orientation, liberal arts vs. more STEM focused colleges, class size, support services, co-op and internship opportunities, Greek life and the amount of general education requirements such as foreign language. 

A big part of college is to have opportunities to grow. While it is natural to feel insecure about change and to want to have people you know along with you at the transitions, you will develop new friends at college and may even be more likely to reach out if you are not staying tied to old relationships.

Particularly for more selective and smaller private schools, they are not going to take a tremendous amount of students from the same high school. Therefore applying only where your friends are applying decreases your chances of acceptances and you end up just competing against each other.​

There are a tremendous number of interesting and challenging colleges outside of your local region and beyond the handful of names everyone has heard of. Giving yourself a chance to explore beyond the familiar can be very beneficial and often increases your chances of acceptance as well.

8. Families assuming that only poor people should fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid)
  • A rule of thumb is that if you make up to $200,000 a year in income, or if you have more than one child in college or private high school at the same time as the student who is applying to college, then you should fill out the FAFSA as there is the chance of qualifying for some financial aid assistance.
  • Many colleges want you to first fill out the FAFSA before they will look to give you their own scholarships. They want to know whether you might qualify for any federal monies. The FAFSA simply reports what they calculate should be an affordable EFC (Expected Family Contribution) from each family for each year of college. Many factors can go into determining your EFC. And despite what that number is, colleges can choose to give you more or less financial aid depending upon how much endowment they have available and how much they want your student to attend.

9. Thinking that all colleges offer the same learning disabilities services to students
  • The ADA(Americans with Disabilities Act) requires colleges to have an Office of Disabilities that follow the federal mandate to provide reasonable accommodations to all students with appropriate documentation. However, they may only provide a minimum of accommodations such as extra time for exams, peer tutoring, separate testing environment and assistive technology. Services have to be requested by the student voluntarily. And each institution might have limits as to what they feel is reasonable and the degree of services available. 
  • Some schools offer more robust services, sometimes called coordinated services. These colleges have to be staffed with at least one learning disability specialist that is trained to provide assistance for their students’ individual needs. Sometimes these are for the first year or two of college to help with the transition from high school to college level work. 
  • Other schools offer fee-based services, also called comprehensive services, that go well beyond what is legally mandated and are more structured programs.  These may include modified coursework, individualized academic counseling, weekly meetings with the students, study skills and learning strategy instruction, note-takers, time management skills, groups for students, academic coaching and content based tutoring. 
  • With some colleges there are also accommodations for students with other emotional, social, substance or other health concerns that might involve dorm room accommodations, support animals, substance-free housing options, modified food plans and social support groups. Sometimes a smaller school can better provide the necessary personal attention that might be required.​
  • Therefore, if your student has any kind of social/emotional or learning needs, it is important to do the research to find the schools that would work best with your student as they can vary greatly in the resources available.​

10. Students believing that  college admissions primarily look at test scores and GPA for acceptance​​​​​​
  • Many colleges look at a student applicant holistically. They take seriously into consideration other factors beyond test scores such as the student’s work and volunteer experience, how they utilized their summers, their personal statement that reflects their interests and character, leadership activities and school and community involvement, letters of reference from people who know the student well and can attest to their effort, creativity, curiosity and openness to learn, and challenges that the student has had to overcome.
  • Nowadays many schools, almost 25% of accredited 4-year colleges, have gone test-optional as they feel one shot testing does not always reflect future success at college. In addition to high school grades, they are looking at qualities a student has such as consistency, motivation, drive and maturity. Colleges are looking at what you can bring to their community. The most important factor in deciding on a college is best-fit. If you present a strong, thoughtful application, there will be colleges where you will be accepted, even if you are a B or C student. Many ‘average’ students have excelled at college because they found a school that provided opportunities to grow and develop their skills and potentialities​.