Foreword: This article was originally written in May 2022, so some dates and language may seem outdated. I recently gained the motivation to finish this article after Columbia University acknowledged that they were sending inaccurate data to US News and World Report. Although I am no longer a student at Madison, I felt compelled to finish this article for the benefit of the Class of 2023 and future classes. I hope this will be a useful tool for your college application endeavors.
College admissions are a nerve-racking and time-consuming process that many students embark on nearing the end of their high school career to determine their futures for the next chapter of their lives. Although this year’s round of applicants has already made their decisions, this process will repeat for another cycle come August 1, 2022, when the Common App and Coalition Application reopen to prospective applicants.
It is difficult to understand the minds of the admissions counselors who will be evaluating applications because each person is unique and may see you differently than someone else might. It is also impossible to know your outcomes at the time of your application, and applicants may only realize the blunders they have made long after their college admissions process ended. For some, such blunders may cost hopeful students a seat at their dream school, to learn about schools that may serve as a “better fit” for them, miss out on opportunities to gain better financial aid or scholarships, and more.
In May, I surveyed this year’s round of applicants to share some mistakes they believe they made after completing their college application process. The following is an analysis of the most impactful mistakes students believe they made, as well as how to avoid making them.
Disclaimer: I am not a college admissions officer nor someone who specializes in helping students with their college applications. This is only my perspective and analysis of my own personal blunders and others’.
Mistake 1: Don’t procrastinate on writing your essays
The Common App and Coalition Application require all applicants to write a personal statement for their application. Some schools, particularly more prestigious schools, may require additional essays called supplemental essays that address a custom prompt they want you—the applicant—to answer.
One important thing to know about the college application process is that admissions officers evaluate your application through a holistic approach. In short, the components of your application (grades, test scores, extracurriculars, essays (personal statement and supplementals), etc.) are all considered in your application. In short, they are all essential building blocks of your application, and the impact of each component can differentiate your application from others.
A personal statement generally accounts for 25% of the weight of your application, according to CollegeVine. It allows you to express yourself in a way that grades, test scores, and extracurriculars would make you stand out from the other applicants. According to some, it is like putting your face on your application. Procrastination will chip away valuable time that could be spent brainstorming, outlining, writing, or polishing your essays. College admissions counselors generally spend around 15-40 minutes evaluating one application, so setting aside adequate time to ensure your essays will shine can drastically improve your chances of admission to your top choice school.
It will also allow you to finish writing your essays in a timely manner so that you can submit your application by the Early Action or Early Decision deadline to avoid having to wait until late March for your decisions.
Mistake 2: Not applying for scholarships
There are two main types of scholarships offered to incoming students: internal and external scholarships. Internal scholarships are provided by colleges, while external scholarships are awarded by private organizations, foundations, and individuals. Both types of scholarships can be awarded based on merit, community service, financial need, etc.
Ordinarily, students can apply for scholarships through websites like BigFuture, scholarships.com, Going Merry, etc.—or through a specific college’s or organization’s webpage. Some colleges may ask during the application process if you are interested in being considered for scholarships (note that this may sometimes mean you have to meet certain requirements).
According to the survey, many students later regretted failing to research and apply for scholarships. Because most scholarships require essays, and some others require separate letters of recommendation, test scores, transcripts, personal information, etc., some students may forgo the process of applying for scholarships, instead choosing to focus on other things.
Wayne Gretzky, a former professional ice hockey athlete once said, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” A chance is better than no chance at all. Many students who were reluctant to take that shot likely later claimed they regretted it. Although the chances of being awarded scholarships are indeterminate, allowing yourself to take that step forward gives you an opportunity to better finance your college education and relieve potential burdens like student loan debt.
In addition, some colleges may have honors programs or similar; these programs often provide financial aid and scholarships for their accepted students. Even if you’re applying to a safety school, it’s recommended that you still apply to their honors program if available, or a school you may not even consider attending, because circumstances can change at any time, or you could find yourself surprised with the amount of aid you may receive.
So take a shot. It’s better than not. But, if you don’t apply for any scholarships prior to entering campus, don’t be discouraged, because some scholarships allow undergraduate college students to apply.
Mistake 3: Research thoroughly and not relying heavily on college rankings
Throughout the college admissions process, students are encouraged to research schools and what they offer. However, many people don’t know where to start. There is likely at least one college out there that will be a great fit for you, and that may be contingent upon its academics, culture, climate, specialized programs, etc. However, the hard part is knowing for sure.
“An estimated 20-50% of students enter college as ‘undecided,’ “according to Liz Freedman of Butler University. Withfrank.org states, “At least 80% of college students change their major throughout their college education.” Regardless of whether you are confident in your selection of major, you should still look for someplace that would make you feel comfortable and included. There is no specific way to “research” colleges, but one of the easiest ways would be to attend college campus tours, virtual webinars, information sessions, and other events hosted by universities that pique your interest.
Showing interest may also improve your chances of being accepted to some schools. According to a 2019 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an estimated 16.1% of schools regarded interest as being of “considerable importance” in admissions, with only 32.1% claiming that it has no importance. This means that an estimated 67.9% of schools place some importance on demonstrated interest. Even though this statistic is from 2019, college admissions have only become increasingly competitive since the pandemic, so it is possible that a growing number of schools now place more emphasis on showing interest in their school.
Some surveyed students claimed that they focused on schools with top rankings. However, rankings can be deceiving because each college ranking organization like US News, Forbes, QS News, etc. has differentiating factors that go into its ranking process, especially regarding overall rankings. Perhaps the most popular of which—US News and World Report—claims to place the most emphasis on graduation and retention rates (22%), faculty resources for the years surveyed (20%), and “undergraduate academic reputation” (20%), according to a “peer assessment survey.”
Another example of the unreliability of college rankings has just been made apparent in September 2022 when it was publicized that Columbia University, which previously ranked #2 on US News’s “Best National University” Rankings, had been sending inaccurate data to US News to artificially boost their rankings. Consequently, its rankings have plunged to #18, now making Columbia the lowest-ranked Ivy League school according to US News and World Report.
Truthfully, rankings sometimes mean more to parents than they do to students. In a New York Times article, reporter Stephanie Saul writes: “Darren Rose, president of POM College Consulting, a college admissions adviser based in suburban Cleveland, says that parents regularly contact his company armed with a list of top-ranked schools and insist that their children are timber for admission. His company tries to explain that other schools might be better fits, but he says that ‘numbers mean more to the family when they’re chatting with their friends or bragging on social media than they mean in the real world.’”
There is also a benefit for colleges and universities in artificially inflating their rankings.
Rankings may sway your perception while applying to or researching colleges, and even your parents’. So remember, take college rankings with a grain of salt, and focus on finding schools that you like. Find somewhere that will make you happy, comfortable, included, and suits what you aim to do—and always have a backup plan.
Mistake 4: FAFSA® and Financial Aid
At the beginning of students’ senior year, students become eligible to apply for federal aid through an online application known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form.
There is a myth surrounding financial aid and the FAFSA® application that ends up hurting students by the time they have received their applications and financial packages that every school gives students as an estimate of their cost of attendance; even I succumbed to this misconception. Another commonly held belief is that filling out the FAFSA® is useless if you believe that you don’t have demonstrated financial need. However, this is not true. Even if you aren’t expecting to receive financial aid from the federal government, FAFSA® is often a requirement for many schools to be eligible for internal scholarships and other types of financial aid. You may also be surprised with the amount of aid you are going to receive—whether it’s from the federal government or an educational institution. Luckily, you are able to apply for federal aid with FAFSA® starting October 1 through June 30, so you don’t have to worry too much about missing out on a deadline.
FAFSA® also gives students eligibility for federal loans. Even if you are frightened about tacking on potential debt, loans can help build your credit score (as long as you keep paying your bills on time) and alleviate some financial burden on tuition costs.
Some private schools may require an additional financial aid application known as the CSS Profile. The CSS Profile is administered by the College Board and is only utilized by some private schools. Unfortunately, the CSS Profile is not free, unlike FAFSA®. However, fee waivers are available to those who are unable to afford the fee. The CSS Profile opens up to prospective students seeking financial aid on October 1.
Mistake 5: Starting too late
Some surveyed students claimed that they started their applications too late. College applications are a tedious process that requires you to set aside some time to focus on your application. The Common App or Coalition Application both require you to answer a lot of personal required questions which may take some time to answer, so starting early ensures that you will be able to complete and submit your application in a timely fashion.
This also relates back to supplemental essays; people focused less on actually writing them and more on their personal activities which depleted the available time they had to be able to actually brainstorm and write.
Some supplemental questions may also require research of the school in question. For example, New York University required a “Why us?” essay in which they expected you to write about how you would benefit from the programs and opportunities that the school had to offer. For me, writing this essay took a lot of time because I had to research, outline, brainstorm, write, and then edit the essay. Fortunately, I found a great guide online from the College Essay Guy. It made writing the NYU essay and other supplemental essays much easier.
Mistake 6: Don’t stress too much about not getting into your top choice or a prestigious school
There’s no doubt that college admissions are an extremely stressful process for many students. As mentioned before, learning how to navigate the system, writing essays, and completing the application can be extremely nerve-racking, especially when it comes to applying for your top choice or prestigious institutions.
Admittedly, the threshold for prestigious colleges and universities, such as Ivy League schools, is extremely high. However, only 0.4% of all college students actually attend an Ivy League institution. If an Ivy League school or another high-ranked institution is your first choice, by all means: apply. At the end of the day, you’re still extremely likely to get accepted somewhere, and the institution you may later attend will not fully define your true academic ability. In fact, it may even be easier to stay afloat, since prestigious institutions generally have more rigorous academics, and grade deflation at some schools can be high. Moreover, top-ranked universities tend to be pricey (schools like New York University can amount to over $80K total cost of attendance) and you are never guaranteed scholarship money or financial aid from a university. Your experience is what you make of it, and you may have a better experience at your local state university or community college than at your top choice school.
At the end of the day, where you attend college doesn’t really matter. Sure, attending a prestigious or higher-ranked university may benefit you with more job connections, internships, and other opportunities, but your character and experience are what really matter most—not where you received your diploma from. And if you feel that you would be more successful at a highly-ranked institution, you could always submit a transfer application during your first year of college.
My personal mistakes:
The previous mistakes largely came from user-generated responses from the survey I conducted in May 2022. However, I still have a few personal ones that may be relevant to you.
Even if you think it’s not relevant, it may still be.
In high school, I volunteered for a decent number of hours at school and at other places. However, I ended up not adding this to my application for an unknown reason. I also created a personal online project in high school that I neglected to add to my application because I felt it was insignificant to my application. After I completed the college applications process, I realized that this was a huge mistake because I still had available slots for extracurriculars (you’re limited to only 10 on Common App), and it may have even been able to increase my application’s competitiveness.
Apply to more reach schools
Initially, I intended to apply to more Top 50 schools. However, once I saw that many of these schools required supplemental essays, I began to procrastinate writing them, instead choosing to focus on other personal activities. Looking back, I should have absolutely spent that personal time writing supplemental essays for more reach schools. It wouldn’t have hurt to do so, and I would maybe even have been accepted by a few. Although, I should note that not everyone has the free time necessary to write additional supplementary essays, so you should only consider applying to the schools you see yourself attending the most if you feel you do not have the available free time necessary to write additional essays.
Appeal for more financial aid
Private institutions are undoubtedly expensive, and even though I have received some internal aid from them, the cost of attendance was still too much compared to public institutions which were roughly similar in quality. Some universities allow admitted students to appeal for more financial aid. You are sometimes able to do this on the university’s application portal after receiving your decision, but if not, you could always contact its financial aid department to request an appeal (always check out a university’s guidelines before doing so, and don’t be afraid to email or call and ask). Who knows; maybe I would have received no extra aid; or maybe they would have thrown me an extra few thousand dollars in aid. It never hurts to try, and it’s possible that it could’ve changed the outcome of my decision.
College applications are difficult. I wish that I knew ahead of time what challenges I would be facing and what things I would be missing that would have potentially improved my chances of getting into higher-ranked and more prestigious universities. This is by no means a comprehensive guide, but I hope it helps you in your future college application endeavors.
I currently attend Stony Brook University, a public institution, and I personally believe that it is an incredible school despite the fact that its ranking isn’t as high as some other schools that accepted me. I do not at all regret choosing Stony Brook, but I wish that I had more options and better financial aid packages to help me choose from. Nevertheless, as I’ve previously mentioned, it’s more important to find a school that best represents your character and makes you feel comfortable and included. Many schools will still have incredible and intelligent faculty that are accredited in their fields, so don’t worry too much about sacrificing academic excellence for other deciding factors. At the end of the day, your character and experience matter most.
If you’re interested in reading all the student-generated responses to the survey, you can find them here.