09/06/2012 07:20 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2012

More Mistakes to Avoid When Completing College Apps

By now, most students have returned to school and fall semester is under way. For seniors, the college application process has begun (or is beginning now). In my last blog, I identified four common, but avoidable mistakes college applicants make in completing applications, and promised to follow with more. Here is Round two of mistakes to avoid when filling out applications:


Many students miss out on financial aid by not completing the FAFSA or college-specific financial aid forms. Every January 1, the federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form becomes available to gain access to and receive federal financial aid to pay for college. Many states, colleges and private funders also make use of FAFSA information to determine student eligibility for aid. The FAFSA should be completed as early as you can after January 1 because deadlines vary by college, state or program of study.

INSIDER TIP: Every October, College Board offers CSS PROFILE, a financial aid application for hundreds of private and some public schools. Students should complete the profile as soon as they can.

Many colleges also have their own financial aid forms and/or questions that students must answer to be eligible for aid. Their due dates are often different from the FAFSA and PROFILE forms. Check with the colleges' financial aid offices to find out.


Many students choose to take a gap year (a year or two between high school and college spent working or pursuing special interests). This is often a good move, and colleges are usually very supportive of students who take a gap year. However, it is not a good idea to let them know you are planning to do this in your application. The reason to withhold this information is that you don't want to give colleges any reason to not accept you. Colleges are always looking for ways to make decisions between applicants with similarly compelling applications; so acknowledging that you plan to take a year off is sometimes a reason to waitlist or reject your application.

What to do? Keep the gap year idea to yourself until you have applied, gotten into and said yes to a college acceptance offer. After that, talk with the admissions people about your taking a gap year. The options available usually include a) offering you a deferral, or b) asking you to re-submit your application the next year, or c) telling you to submit a completely new application.


While 488 schools use The Common Application and 44 schools use the Universal Application, individual colleges also frequently have their own specific forms and deadlines. In order to not miss early application deadlines or required forms, make sure you carefully read the admissions instructions for each school to which you apply.


One of the most frequent mistakes made by college applicants is writing essays that do not address the specific elements that the college application questions ask. College admissions officers can be very picky about students following directions. So even though you write brilliantly, if your essay does not answer every aspect of a prompt or keep to a specified word count, readers might negatively evaluate you. Make sure you write answers that truly answer individual essay questions. Also, it goes without saying that grammar and punctuation must be perfect; don't forget to have someone who is knowledgeable about such things edit your essay before you submit it.

INSIDER TIP: When you write your essays, dare to be yourself. It's better to write an essay that sounds like nobody else's and is really you, than to write an essay that sounds like what you think admissions people want to read.


One surefire way to turn off a college admissions officer is to appear uninformed about their school. Whether asked in a college application or in a personal admissions interview, don't forget to show that you really know a lot about a school. Identify and describe the specific characteristics that make you a good fit, including how the campus meets your needs and students are "your kind of people." Identify programs and activities you're itching to get involved with, and specific classes or even professors from whom you want to take classes. Let colleges know that their school is at the top of your college list.

Now that you've seen my lists of avoidable pitfalls, what are other things that you know applicants should avoid doing in their applications? Let me know.