Four Common, But Avoidable, College Application Mistakes

As fall early application deadlines approach, frequent "Help me, PLEASE!" phone calls and emails remind me that in college admissions, seemingly small details can become big headaches for students. While compelling essays and wonderful recommendations are big factors in getting into college, students first have to submit their applications correctly. Here are four common mistakes students make in filling out their applications and also how to avoid them.

Last week, I received a phone call from an applicant parent who was very upset that her son had completed an online application, only to have all his work disappear when he logged out. The next day, the student came to my office to show me what he had done. Very quickly, I found that he had typed information on the PDF version of the application, not the actual online form.

Many schools provide a .PDF downloadable version of their application forms for students to use for reference, or to submit their applications by mail. Typing answers into the PDF version is a great way for online applicants to practice getting everything filled-in correctly (answers can be printed but not saved), but it is not the same as filling out the online application.

Always be sure to log-in to the online Common Application, Universal Application or individual school's application website and type your answers directly in the application. These sites allow answers to be saved and revised repeatedly before you actually submit the entire online application.

For privacy reasons, online applications usually are configured to log users out after a specific amount of time, often 60 minutes, or after a period of inactivity (can be as little as 15 minutes). Believe me, as you complete an application it is very easy to get distracted by a phone call, a snack, or a conversation. If you don't save the work you have done, it might be lost.

The safest thing to do is click the SAVE button at the bottom of an online application page each time you complete an item, section or full page, and always click SAVE before stepping away from the computer.

I can't tell you how many panicked calls for help I get from students who say they can't get the online applications to work for them. One of the first things I suggest is that they make sure that they have the latest operating systems and browsers required for the specific applications.

Here are some of the current requirements:

The Common Application
• For PC's
Operating systems: Windows XP/Vista/7 operating systems

Browsers: Internet Explorer 6 or higher or Mozilla Firefox 3 or higher

• For Mac
Operating systems: OSX Tiger/Leopard/Snow Leopard

Browsers: Safari 3.1 or higher, Internet Explorer 6 or higher or Mozilla Firefox3 or higher

Neither Google Chrome nor AOL browsers are recommended by The Common App.

For Other Applications
Some applications require that JavaScript and Cookies are enabled and that Pop-up Blockers are disabled. Sometimes application programs go through an automatic Browser Capability Check to see if your browser is acceptable.

To be sure your computer meets the website requirements, check the Technical Issues or System Requirements section for each application. Also know that most applications have very responsive Support Teams to answer questions and solve application problems you encounter.


Last year, I went over a student's application and found that her activity grid was barely filled out, with only one- or two-word descriptions in most boxes. When I asked her why she didn't give more information, this very polite, understated young lady said with great sincerity, "Well, I felt like I was doing the admission reader a favor by not giving too much to read." Oh my. I had never heard that answer before!

Yes, some of these grids restrict the number of words you can use in a space, but admissions people say they want you to give as much information as you can. Fill whatever is provided, making sure that it is accurate and paints a full picture. Also, don't use abbreviations; e.g., SWAT, instead of Student Writing Assistant Team, or TRACE, instead of Teens Responding to Aids with Care and Education.

Next week, I will go over other ways to prevent mistakes and avoid disasters in completing college applications.

In the meantime, let me know what your experiences have been. Together, we can help others learn from these experiences.