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College Application Do’s and Don’ts: The Ultimate List

Applying to colleges is a time-consuming and often overwhelming process. To help guide you through it, we’ve put together a list of helpful college admission do’s and don’ts.


Start early.

The summer before your senior year is an ideal time to start working on your college applications. Sure, this may not be your idea of summer fun. But once senior year is underway, you’ll find it much more difficult to make time for filling out college applications and writing college essays.

Even before the summer, it’s a good idea to have a list of colleges and deadlines put together, along with a list of your extracurricular involvement and achievements.

Must read: Why Job Shadowing Is Secretly the Smartest Way to Spend Your Summer

Research each college/university.

If you’re serious about receiving acceptance letters, it’s important to be knowledgeable about each college/university you’ll be applying to. Research classes, professors, opportunities, and unique qualities that interest you.

This way, your application and essays will reflect a genuine interest in and knowledge of the college or university. This can set you apart from other applicants who are mindlessly filling out applications without doing their research.

You should also research the average admitted student’s SAT/ACT scores and GPA to gauge your chances of acceptance.

Brainstorm and plan before beginning your essays.

To write an excellent college application essay, brainstorming and planning are key. Start by looking at the topic options, whether you’re writing a Common Application essay or something college-specific.

For each topic, jot down a few related ideas. Do you have a meaningful story related to the topic? When you’re done, read through your ideas and choose the one that will make the best essay.

A good college essay is meaningful to you and provides insight on who you are and what you think is important. Once you’ve chosen your idea, plan out a beginning, middle, and end before you start writing. College essays have strict word limits, so planning ensures you leave room for all the most important details.

Be specific.

Instead of saying you’re excited that the college “offers plentiful opportunities,” provide concrete examples of opportunities that spark your interest (and explain why).

Rather than writing that you’re a “great leader,” tell a story about a time you showed excellent leadership qualities.

Don’t say you “love learning;” write about the time you spent six hours in the library absorbed in books on forensic psychology.

You get the idea.

Avoid generic statements and fill your application with concrete details and specific anecdotes instead. Specificity makes your meaning clear and breathes life into your application.

Apply to your dream schools.

Sometimes, the school you really want to go to may seem like a reach. Don’t let that stop you from applying. If you have time, try to boost your GPA. Consider taking the SAT or ACT again to get a higher score. Even if your time is limited, you can focus on getting great letters of recommendation and writing stellar essays.

You may or may not get in, but you won’t know unless you try. Apply to at least two “dream schools,” but make sure that you also apply to a few more practical alternatives just in case. Even if you don’t get into the school of your dreams, you’ll have some great options to choose from.

Have a “theme” or “story.”

Before you start applying to colleges, spend some time thinking about:

  • Your identity. What experiences or traits most define you?
  • Challenges. What challenges have you overcome? How did you overcome them? What did you learn, or how did these experiences shape you?
  • Passions. What are you passionate about? What do you truly love to do? What makes you tick?
  • The future. What are your goals and plans for the future? What would you like to achieve? How would you like to contribute to society?

Your college application is your introduction to the admissions team, and it should tell your story. Choose a few key aspects of your personality and identity to incorporate throughout your application. This ensures that your application is a reflection of you, and that’s something that will certainly stand out.

Be genuine/honest/authentic.

Again, your real personality and voice should shine through in your college application. Admissions officers want to get to know the real you. This is only possible if you approach the college application process with honesty. Write in your authentic voice and tell your real story.

Spell the college’s name right!

This one seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many college admissions officers mention misspellings of their school’s name. Even worse, some students use the same essay for multiple colleges and forget to change the college’s name. This major faux pas is easy to avoid, so double and triple check your spelling.

Ask someone to look over your application before you submit it.

After revising the essay yourself, get at least one additional pair of eyes on your college application (the more, the better). Have your reviewer(s) check for spelling and grammar errors, as well as anything that is confusing or unclear. You should also ask if the application “sounds” like you and captures who you are. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to revisit and make some changes.


Try too hard to impress admissions officers.

College admissions officers can tell when you’re trying too hard. And when you try too hard, your application comes across as stiff, overly formal, and disingenuous.

The true purpose of a college application is to help admissions officers get to know you. Don’t ask yourself, “Will the admissions team like this?” Instead, ask yourself, “How can I help admissions officers learn about me?”

Lie or exaggerate any information.

You might not get caught if you lie on your application, but it is a possibility. And if you do get caught lying, you certainly won’t receive an acceptance letter. If the school finds out after admitting you, your acceptance can be rescinded (taken away).

Plus, if you’re lying or exaggerating, you’re still missing the point: The admissions team wants to know the real you! The most memorable applications are genuine, honest applications that reveal some real personality.

Must read: 5 College Essay Topics You Should Never, Ever Write About

Miss deadlines.

One sure way to get rejected from a college is to miss the application deadline. You also need to pay attention to deadlines for test scores, transcripts, portfolios (if applicable), etc.

Even after acceptance, some schools require you to send a mid-year report and/or final transcripts, so you’ll need to be aware of these deadlines too.

We advise purchasing a calendar or creating an e-calendar specifically for college applications. Write all important deadlines in the calendar and check it regularly.

Spread yourself too thin.

There’s no need to apply to 20 schools, or even 15. Most experts recommend applying to anywhere from 4-10 colleges. The key is to have at least 2-3 safety schools and 2-4 target schools. You can also apply to 2-3 reach schools. Of course, you don’t have to stick exactly to these guidelines. But if you apply to more than 10 schools, you’re likely to find yourself stressed, overwhelmed, and rushed.

Another way to avoid spreading yourself too thin is to not wait until the last minute. Plan ahead so you have plenty of time to submit quality, error-free applications (with as little stress as possible).

Wait too long to ask for letters of recommendation.

Your teachers have a lot on their plates, so don’t wait too long to ask for your letters of recommendation. You should give your teachers at least 2-3 weeks. However, keep in mind that many students might ask for letters from the same teacher, so it’s best to get in even earlier if you can. Your teacher will appreciate the courtesy, and it may result in an even more positive recommendation!

Use the same generic information and essays for every college.

Earlier, we discussed that it’s important to be specific in your college applications. It’s also important to make your genuine interest in and knowledge of the college clear. You’ll miss the mark if you use the same generic information and essays for every college.

Research each college in advance, and then tailor your applications to each school. (You’ll do the same thing when you apply to jobs in the future!)

Let finances stop you from applying.

We all know that college is expensive. But if you’re really interested in a school, apply now and worry about finances later. You never know if the school will offer you a scholarship or an excellent financial aid package.

Must Read: A Secret About Ivy League Schools: They’re More Affordable Than You Think

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Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.