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College Application & Financial Aid Pitfalls: 4 Costly Mistakes to Avoid

Picture of Caitlin Harper
By Caitlin Harper on July, 4 2023 | 7 minute read

Every Sunday of my childhood I went grocery shopping with my Dad. It was our thing. I escaped the chaos of having two brothers at home and my Dad had a sidekick who could reach the mac 'n cheese box at the back of the shelf. He taught me how to pick perfect produce and, most importantly, how to identify the best deals. 

By the time I was in high school, the grocery store clerks knew me as the girl who could guess the total cost of that day's shopping within a few dollars. I became an expert bargain shopper.

A college education is one of the most significant investments a student and their family will make. It makes sense that there would be a lot of worry around finding the best "bargain," the college with the greatest potential return on investment. After over a decade working in college admissions for private colleges, I know finances are a determining factor of where a student ultimately enrolls. 

And while this blog is not going to tackle the behemoth topic of financing a college education (shout out to my amazing colleague and Collegewise's Financial Aid Consultant, Mo Dyson - keep an eye out for his blog posts to help you through that topic!), it will cover four mistakes students and families make that are entirely within their control and could lead to missing out on cost-saving opportunities.

Costly Mistake #1: Omitting important context.

A college is only going to know what you tell them. They won't assume, read between the lines, or turn into investigative journalists when reviewing your application. 

Maybe you had to work a full-time job to support your family through a hard time, and that's why you didn't participate in that many school-sanctioned extracurriculars. You may have taken AP Mandarin senior year, but the only class time offered conflicted with AP Calculus, so you decided to self-study Mandarin instead. 

You need to take control of your story and tell it confidently in your application to avoid being overlooked for admission and potential scholarships. 

Use every opportunity to give context and explanation that could benefit you. List every meaningful thing you spend time doing, even if you don't think it fits as an "activity." Use Additional Information sections strategically and concisely. And rely on something other than your school counselor or teachers to address everything in their letters of recommendation.

Costly Mistake #2: Missing deadlines.

Not all deadlines are created equal. There are the main admission application deadlines - Early Action, Early Decision, Regular Decision, and others. But there are also priority deadlines for specific majors, programs, and scholarships. 


Here are some examples:

If you're intending to pursue a visual or performing art in college, the application requirements may include auditions or portfolio reviews and the deadlines may be earlier than the admission deadline. Interested in studying drama at Syracuse University? Your audition materials need to be prepared and submitted by November 1 regardless of whether you're applying for admission under their later Early Decision or Regular Decision deadlines.

To be considered for merit scholarships at Vanderbilt University, you must apply for admission and submit the additional scholarship application(s) by December 1. If you wait to apply for admission under their Early Decision II or Regular Decision deadlines, or miss submitting the additional scholarship application(s), you could miss out on being considered for their merit scholarships.

This is one of the main reasons why Collegewise advises students and families to start this process early. Explore college options and build a college list before senior year of high school. This generous on-ramp will allow you time to uncover any priority deadlines and give you ample time to prepare for them.

Costly Mistake #3: Not checking email and college portals regularly.

Colleges send an overwhelming amount of emails. I know. And for teenagers who are already email-averse, the thought of sifting through catchy, emoji-filled subject lines to try to find the emails that could offer them amazing opportunities is akin to asking them to clean their room to find that one lost sock. Once I tell my students what could be in those emails though, their attitude tends to shift.

Colleges will email students with invitations to campus visit programs that may include sizable travel vouchers and grants. An email could hold an invitation to apply for a specific scholarship based on their chosen academic program or intended major. And most commonly, a college's financial aid office will reach out to request additional information and documents to verify and complete your financial aid package. 

I advise students to create an email address that they use specifically for the college application process. Ideally, you make it early and use it on your PSAT registration and at any college fairs or campus visits you do early in high school. Commit to an organizational system to keep your inbox clear and a routine for checking it, like every morning while you eat breakfast.

Once you apply to a college, they will likely send you login credentials for their online portal. Don't wait to set up that account! This is another crucial communication hub that will tell you not only if your admission application is complete but, in most cases, your ultimate admission decision and potential scholarship award. The portal may also be where you find out about additional financial aid you're eligible to apply for and receive important reminders about deadlines and requirements.

Costly Mistake #4: Not submitting the FAFSA.

I'm going to be blunt - unless you're prepared to pay the full cost of attendance for any of the schools where you're applying, there's no reason you shouldn't submit the FAFSA. Don't assume you won't qualify for need-based financial aid unless you've completed the FAFSA recently (like in the past year) or done the Net Price Calculator and/or MyIntuition Calculator for all the schools on your list. 

Even if you use the calculators and learn that you do not qualify for federal need-based aid, there are still reasons to submit the FAFSA. For instance, some colleges require the FAFSA for a student to be considered for and awarded certain university merit scholarships. You also never know what is on the horizon for you and your family. 

Suppose circumstances change, and you find yourself in a position where you need more financial assistance to attend your dream college. In that case, the reconsideration process will likely be faster and more efficient if you already have a FAFSA and financial documentation on file.

"Check the expiration date, Caitlin. Details are important!" "Grab that coupon! Might as well get the 50 cents off!" I still hear my Dad's voice ring through my head when I go grocery shopping. I love the lessons he taught me, and I hope you see how many of them can help you during your college search, too. 

Remember, you have control in this process. You can tell your entire story, pay attention to the details, do the research, fill out the forms, and ask questions when you have them.

Who should you ask your questions to? Collegewise would love to help!


About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.


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