Top Reasons For College Rejection

We are fast approaching the November 1 application deadline for many early decision and early action plans. It’s a good time to discuss the top reasons for rejection, so you can hopefully avoid them. 

First, keep in mind that different schools will have different standards for admission, but the common reasons for rejection are pretty universal. In other words, this list applies to Harvard and Yale as well as your regional college or state university. The key for you is to identify potential problems and strive to avoid them. 

1. Incomplete Application

Failure to send transcripts, required letters of recommendation, payment, or any other required element will result in rejection. It is the applicant’s responsibility to make sure everything is received on time. 

Tip: Don’t wait until the night before to submit your application. It is not unheard of for the application portals to have tech issues with too many people submitting materials last minute. Additionally, check your online account with each university to double check receipt of materials sent by others such as transcripts, test scores, and letters of recommendation. 

2. Incompatible Grades and/or Scores

Schools are looking to admit students who are a good fit and will be academically successful. While not perfect, high school grades and test scores provide an indication of a student’s readiness for college level work.

This is where it is important for you to do your research. Your grades / scores might be above average at one school, average at another, and below average at a third. Colleges are looking for students who are a good match for the academic rigor at their institution. 

“Incompatible” might be the B student who submits an application to Harvard or Duke hoping to get lucky. Or the C student who applies to the top state universities. It is the student with a 21 on the ACT applying to a school where the average students score 30-33. 

Tip: While grades and scores are not everything, they play a significant role in college admission. Make sure you have a clear idea of how your numbers compare to the averages at the schools on your list. One way to do this is to search “admitted student profile XYZ University.” 

3. Poor Quality Application

I’ve seen it– great students submitting mediocre applications— essay errors, missing information, careless mistakes. Colleges can only judge what they receive so poor quality information can result in rejection. 

Think about it; sloppy work is an indication that the applicant either doesn’t care that much about the particular school or may have academic weaknesses not revealed in his or her transcript. 

Tip: Don’t type your activities, short answers, or essays directly into the online application. Write them out in a document that you can proofread first. It is much harder to catch errors when you are reading them from a tiny box on your screen. 

4. Red Flags

Red flags are used on beaches to warn of danger. Some students submit applications with potential signs of trouble. Red flags could indicate a particular applicant might be a disciplinary or safety risk to campus. Others warn of academic problems. Red flags may also catch students lying (or stretching the truth). 

Here are some examples of red flags:

  • Multiple disciplinary actions that are not adequately explained or that show an ongoing pattern of behavior.
  • An applicant who writes about his/her significant influence in the community as a leader in clubs and organizations, yet none of his/her recommendation letters mention anything about the student’s leadership. In fact, the letters present the student as very disinterested.
  • A downward trend with grades and course rigor. Or a sudden drop in grades.
  • Hours listed on a resume that could not possibly be true– like the student who claims more hours of service and activities than exist in a week. 
  • Serious issues with the law. Colleges don’t want to admit students who might be dangerous to themselves or others. 

Tip: Present yourself accurately and explain any problems honestly. It is ok to mess up, learn from your mistakes, and do better, but it is important to give a clear explanation to your potential colleges. This is the type of thing I help clients write each year. 

5. Stiff Competition

Sometime you can do everything right– top grades and scores, challenging classes, stellar extracurriculars, exceptional recommendations– and still get rejected. These cases can feel unfair, bur the reason you weren’t admitted had nothing to do with a flaw in your application; you simply faced stiff competition and ultimately were not selected. 

Admitting the freshman class at a highly competitive school like Rice, Brown, or Stanford is a little like drafting your fantasy football team or casting the next hit Broadway show. There will be lots of highly talented people who aren’t chosen. I may have to turn down Tom Brady because I already selected Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. It doesn’t mean Tom Brady isn’t qualified and I’m sure some of you might have selected different quarterbacks. 

Tip: When applying to highly selective schools (any school that admits fewer than 20% of its applicants) no one is assured admission. Manage your expectations and understand that rejection is usually a result of stiff competition rather than any weakness on your part. 

Sometimes rejection in college admission is inevitable. You want to stretch yourself and consider a few schools that might be a reach. But take care in building your college list and completing your applications so you can avoid some of the common reasons for rejection.

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