The Most Common College Application Mistakes to Avoid

Woman holding her hand to her head with a surprised expression on her face.

The Most Common College Application Mistakes to Avoid

Published February 22, 2024

Woman holding her hand to her head with a surprised expression on her face.

If you could avoid the biggest mistake that most parents and students make when applying to college, would you? 

We asked parents in our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group and our Road 2 College Facebook Group whose children have already applied to college to share what they think is the top mistake that even smart applicants make. Some of their answers may surprise you.

By far the most popular answer was related to budgeting and the cost of attendance (COA) to certain schools. 

“Talking about [what you can afford] and how to pay for it after applying and underestimating the time and energy the whole process takes is a big mistake!” said Jenny F.

GeriAnn B. said not fully researching the cost of attendance before putting schools on the list is a major blunder because you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment when you can’t afford it or need to take out loans to attend. 

It’s Important To Be Realistic About Your Budget Before You Apply 

“My heart hurts every time I see a child was accepted to the dream school and they can’t afford it,” said Katherine M. “That can all be avoided with a budget conversation and net price calculators followed up with good research to get current numbers.”

Dad David M.J. says it’s important to have the financial conversation in the summer or early fall of senior year at the latest, then apply to a mix of schools based on affordability. “There is often a lot of focus on balancing their college list based on academic and social fit,” he said. “But families should research the costs and have the financial reach, target, and safety schools [on the list]. The saddest posts I see are in late April when a student was admitted into a ‘dream’ school but the parents are scrambling to find a way to pay for it or to find an affordable alternative.”

Several parents shared Claire M.H.’s sentiment about assuming that public colleges will be the cheapest option and preventing kids from applying to private colleges based on the sticker price. “Financial aid at many good schools is very generous and it may bring the cost down to less than the state school,” she said.

Tara H. also warned parents against ignoring out-of-state colleges for fear they will be too expensive, citing how many small liberal arts colleges are known for being generous with merit.

Another money-saver is community colleges, said Liz N.Z. “Not saving a ton of money doing general ed courses for two years at a really good community college is a mistake when that is an option,” she said.

Grades And High Scores Don’t Always Equal Acceptance — Or Merit

Whatever you do, don’t assume that good grades are a ticket to acceptance — or even a scholarship, said many parents. 

“High grades and a high standardized test score will get you accepted to many or even most of your in-state universities and less selective schools, but for the selective schools, you need so much more,” said Tina C.S. ”You need to be very intentional about what classes you take, the extracurricular activities and volunteer hours you choose, and then once you are ready to apply, you will need outstanding letters of recommendation and very well written and captivating essays and a lot of luck!!” 

It’s also easy to assume that merit aid is a given, but that depends entirely on the school and several other factors. 

“Strong grades and test scores are a ‘dime a dozen,'” added Claire M.H. “The applicants who are successful have those and a “hook” from extracurriculars, competitions, and other honors, plus selective summer programs.” 

When another parent asked her to explain what she meant by extracurriculars, since that can mean different things to different people, she had examples at the ready. “Winning a major competition, making an all-state orchestra or sports team, and getting selected for a prestigious summer program like the Research Science Institute can all have a big impact,” she said.

Another common mistake is buying into the idea that there is a so-called dream school out there for everyone. “After the bragging that happens the last six months of senior year, no one cares and no one ever talks about it again,” said Karina B.M. “It’s so insignificant in the big picture yet feels so important in that moment.”

Another common mistake to avoid when applying to college, said Crystal M.L, is to assume that anything other than Ivys and other big-name schools is beneath you. Joe S. agreed and warned families not to take even big-name rankings too seriously. “Even U.S. News & World Report rankings don’t define quality.”

Instead, parents suggest looking for schools that are a good fit for their students overall. “Failing to consider fit between student and college is a common pitfall,” said Lisa G.

Lacking a Plan B Is Another Popular Concern

Applying to too many reaches and not having a safety that they can afford and want to attend is a mistake,” said Kathy C. “As is being unrealistic about what is a reach school.”

Unfair comparisons to other students were another biggie.

After not considering the budget, which she said is the number one mistake, Elaine T.S. said comparing themselves to other applicants is another no-no. “Asking yourself why ‘X’ got in but my kid did more, so why didn’t they get in…It’s your kid’s application. No one else’s. Just like no one else’s application is your kid’s.”

To get the lowdown from these and other parents about the most common mistakes that students make when applying to college, join our Road 2 College and Paying for College 101 Facebook Groups.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

“What Exactly Is ‘Good Merit’ and How Do I Keep It Once I’ve Got It?”

Funny, Clever, and Smart Ways to Handle College Rejections

Community College Changed My Life





In this article:

Upcoming Events

Similar Articles for You

Dear Roadie: Should I Drug-Test My Son to Ensure He’s Not Wasting His College Tuition?


Dear Roadie: Should I Drug-Test My Son to Ensure He’s Not Wasting His College Tuition?

Dear Roadie, My son will be attending a school that costs $80,000 per year. Am I crazy for wanting him...

How Much College Can You Really Afford? Take These 3 Simple Steps For The Answer


How Much College Can You Really Afford? Take These 3 Simple Steps For The Answer

After sending four kids to college with a fifth on the way there soon, I’ve learned a thing or two...

Dear Roadie: Should I Move to a Different State for Free Tuition?


Dear Roadie: Should I Move to a Different State for Free Tuition?

Dear Roadie, We are considering moving to New Mexico for my daughter’s final high school years as I’ve read in-state...

Become a Member

At Road2College you’ll find everything you need to make the admissions and paying for college process less stressful and more transparent.


Explore R2C Insights™ — your source for finding affordable colleges and merit scholarships.


Get coaching on admissions and college financing.


Join Road2College where parents and experts work together to inform and inspire college-bound families.