Over the past few weeks I’ve done several radio shows on getting into college and surviving while you’re there. I’ve also written a few columns on the insane amount of money a college education can cost these days. In today’s guest post, Paul Stephen has some great advice on simple mistakes that can torpedo your child’s chances of getting into the college of his or her choice.

Admissions officers have to wade through sometimes thousands of applications. Unless you are an “auto-admit” or “auto-reject”, you will likely be placed in the “maybe” pile (the destination for most applicants). From there, every page of your application will be copied and circulated through various members of the admissions committee. One misstep and your application could get tossed into the “reject” pile. Here are five common complaints boasted by college admissions officers everywhere; learn what they are and ways to avoid making them on your own college application.

1. Using an inappropriate email address on your application. If you don’t have an email address that ends with .edu, create an email account that only contains your first and last name @xxxx.xxx. Don’t use nicknames like jessonfire6969@gmail.com, or sexychicshs420@hotmail.com, for example. The admissions committee does know what those numbers mean and they won’t be impressed. Even if your email doesn’t contain inappropriate innuendos, it still looks unprofessional to send a serious email to an admissions committee with catlover1999@youremail.com.

2. Spelling your intended major incorrectly. Admissions officers are flooded with applications from students who are so focused on writing a good essay that they lose sight of the rest of their application. Having someone proofread your application doesn’t just apply to your essay. Misspellings can be embarrassing wherever they occur in your application and they can give off the impression that you are not conscientious student (particularly when you misspell your intended major and/or the name of the school you are applying to). For best results, have at least three (college educated) people go through your entire application each time you submit it.

3. Writing your essay about how visiting Mexico during spring break changed your life. If you went to Mexico; or any other country in the global south for that matter, and helped build houses, that’s great, but it probably wasn’t “life-changing.” In reality, it probably wasn’t all that significant for you; apart from the social interactions you might have had with your friends. Bowdoin College’s dean of admissions, Scott Meiklejohn, advises that you should write about something that is meaningful to you, rather than trying to anticipate what you think the college admissions office wants to hear.

4. Writing your essay about an abuse or trauma. As a general rule, don’t do it. There are some, albeit few, circumstances in which mentioning a trauma, is appropriate for a college admissions essay. For example, if growing up with an alcoholic father engendered your desire to become a counselor, then it might be appropriate to mention it, but avoid unnecessary detail about how traumatic it was, or specifically what your father did. Save very personal details for other outlets, like a psychologist, don’t recount the details in your admissions essay, even if they did shape your desire to attend a specific college.

5. Lying about your extracurricular activities. Many admissions officers remark that they don’t understand how students have time to study with all of the clubs and hobbies they list. Remember, there are only 24 hours in a day and you are presumably in class for 8 of those hours and sleeping for another 8. It would be difficult to also fit in reading to blind kids, varsity football, Spanish club, student government, and soccer everyday. Instead of making a laundry list of activities, focus on one or two that you are really passionate about. The admissions committee wants to see that you are dedicated to something, not that you can sign up for something and show up once a month so you can list it as an activity on your application.



Doe, M., & Hernandez, M. A. (2005). Don’t Worry You’ll Get In: 100 Winning Tips for Stress-Free College Admissions. Avalon Publishing: Emeryville, CA.

Davis, K. M. (October, 21, 2010). How to get your college application noticed. Forbes.


Paul Stephen writes from Nipissing University, which provides psychology degree programs that are both rewarding and flexible. Students can choose from social science-oriented or scientific and research-focused courses.