In the competitive field of college admissions, having perfect grades while volunteering and balancing a full extracurricular schedule may help, but it won't guarantee you a spot at selective colleges.
But submitting a pristine application that gives college admissions counselors a clear understanding of a teen's identity and goals is a great way for students to impress admissions officers and increase their chances of getting accepted into their dream college.
Below, college admissions deans share the most common reasons why applications get rejected at their schools and offer tips on submitting a competitive application.
1. The applicant doesn't meet the academic threshold. The types of courses that students take in high school and the grades they receive in those classes are the best indicators of how well a student will perform in college, experts say.
"We have a bottom floor that if they don't achieve over a number in one of those categories, then it is an overall denial of admissions," says LeAnn Hughes, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Illinois Wesleyan University.
2. The application is incomplete. Missing test scores, recommendation letters and other application materials will delay the review process for applicants.
Colleges are likely to ask students to submit missing pieces of their application before the deadline, but it's better to double-check the requirements first.
"Do homework ahead of time to know what the institutions are requiring and to know what the deadlines are, because those are the easiest ways to make sure the application is reviewed," says Heidi Meyer, executive director of admissions at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.
3. The school isn't a good fit. Admissions officers don't expect teens to have concrete career and academic plans, but they do want students to understand the college's mission and have a clear idea of how the school can help them meet their goals. That means researching the institution before applying to make sure the college offers the type of education and experience that the applicant needs. Teens also need to think about what they can offer the college's community.
"If we have a student whose essay indicates that they really want a large school experience or they write about how they wanted to major in something that we didn't necessarily have the appropriate major to get them where they are going, we would want to have a conversation with that student," Hughes says. Illinois Wesleyan has fewer than 2,000 undergraduate students.
4. There are too many errors. Don't put Howard University when you're applying to Hampton. Admissions officers may be willing to overlook a minor mistake, but submitting applications filled with typos and errors shows admissions counselors that the applicant isn't serious about their institution, or that the applicant doesn't have sufficient writing skills to succeed at the college, experts say.
"Make sure that you have two, three sets of eyes looking at your credentials before you submit," says Angela Nixon Boyd, dean of admissions at Hampton University.
A suspension isn't an automatic reason for denial. Cell phone violations or tardiness won't have the same impact as a history of fighting or being disruptive in class, Nixon Boyd says.
Students with suspensions on their records can explain those incidents in their application.
6. The demand is much greater than the supply. "The problem for us is that we have so many more qualified, talented, interesting people than we can enroll," Lee Coffin, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College, says. Dartmouth accepted about 10 percent of the 20,000-plus applications they received in 2016, Coffin says.
"We're looking to populate the class with people who are going to complement the community that we're trying to build," he says. What the community needs changes from year to year and can vary in anything from academics to diversity or athletics. Teens who clearly articulate their interests, goals and potential are most likely to be considered for a spot in the freshman class.
"From a student's perspective, the opportunity is: 'How do I write essays that introduce my personal narrative, my aspirations, my academic interests, as clearly as I can? How do I get recommendations that introduce me to this admissions officer in a way that rounds out the letter grade or maybe the test score that is in that subject area?'"
Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.