University Applications – Avoid Four Common Errors

February 16, 2021

Applying to a university (especially in the US) is … complicated. Sticking to the university application deadline is just the beginning. You want to be sure to avoid the following common (and avoidable!) errors that could send your application to the “no” pile.

1: Starting the university application process too late

Starting to think about university halfway through your penultimate year is too late for two reasons:

First, there is too much to do and not enough time to do it. Below is a typical list of what you need to get done to apply to a US university:

  •   Write your essays (including supplemental essays)
  •   Select your universities
  •   Fill out applications
  •   Prepare for and take the SAT or ACT
  •   Prepare for and take SAT Subject Tests
  •   Request and secure all recommendations
  •   Secure insider liaisons at all universities
  •   Go to university visits
  •   Keep your grades as high as possible
  •   Keep a strong mix of extracurriculars

Advice: If you have less than a year until your deadlines, begin working immediately.                  

Second, if you wait too long, you won’t have the time to create the “specialist applications” for the right universities.

You need to tailor your story and your application to each university – especially universities such as those in the University of California system or MIT, which have separate applications from the Common Application. Universities aren’t concerned with whether you are a “good” student – they care about whether you are a good student for them.

2: Applying to the Wrong Universities

University is a place where you’ll spend four extremely formative years. Picking universities based purely on rank is not a good idea. Two universities might be at the top of their respective fields but are the right fit for entirely different types of people.

To know which universities are the right fit for you, you need to do research. You need to consider factors such as:

  • Academic programs
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Special extracurricular programs
  • Majors and minors offered
  • Class size
  • Student life and atmosphere
  • Demographics and diversity
  • Location and nearby geographic opportunities
  • Job placement rate

It’s not just that different types of students like different universities, different types of universities like different types of students.

The more time and effort you spend researching and selecting the right universities, the higher your chances to get in, the happier you’ll be over the next four years, the more you’ll learn, and the more your career will benefit.

3: Not Proving Interest in the Universities to which You Apply

Before applying to a university, you need to:  

Research the university. Learn about it. Figure out specific reasons why you want to go to THAT university. 

Pass along your enthusiasm in an interview. If you interview with a university, it sees you as more of a person and less of a number. Additionally, the interview is a good time to sell your desire to go to a particular university. 

Use the university’s supplementary essays to hint that the university is the right fit for you. Are you a business fanatic? Apply to a university with a great business program and use your “one thing I’d do to change the world” supplemental essay to talk about leveraging that program to reach out to underprivileged kids and help them to start their own businesses.

Are you an artist? Apply to a university with an art program. Then, in your supplemental essay on “a person who influenced me”, perhaps a notable artist graduate of that university might be in order.

You get the idea. 

4: Failing to Craft a Story and an Area of Expertise

Universities want well-rounded classes, not well-rounded students. No university is interested in a student who is “pretty good at lots of different things.” Universities want SPECIALISTS who can dominate their fields and add to their renown. Universities want superstar athletes, award-winning writers, class presidents, mathletes, instrumentalists, and students with a clearly identified area of mastery and a story to match it. 

You need to start developing your specialty TODAY. It does not matter what your specialty is so long as you have one. 

Every facet of your application needs to reflect your specialty. This is where “crafting a story” comes into play. Extracurriculars. Essay and supplementary essays. SAT Subject Tests. Awards won. Recommendations. Grades. You can’t just say that you’re “an excellent writer” – you need to prove that you are. You do that with As in English, published papers, writing awards won, and an application to a university with a fantastic writing program.