Common Reasons College Applications Get Rejected

Admissions officers look beyond academic standing to make tough rejection decisions. Consider these seven reasons.

Front view of a single sad teen lamenting sitting on her bed after reading a letter with a dark light in the background
Poor fit, lack of demonstrated interest, and tough competition are among the common reasons college applications are rejected.GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

As the volume of college applications continues to increase, admissions officers have tough decisions to make when it comes to filling limited seats. In a competitive admissions environment, students may be rejected from schools where they could thrive, says Eddie Pickett III, senior associate dean and director of recruitment at Pomona College in California.

“For selective colleges, most students who apply can complete the work on campus, but there is only so much space in housing and classrooms,” he says. “Each school sets their own evaluation system and applies that while reading student applications.”

Applicants can increase their chances of getting accepted by understanding what college admissions officers most like to see on applications. Here are seven common reasons why college applications get rejected, according to some experts:

  • Failure to meet high GPA or test score standards.
  • Insufficient academic rigor.
  • Lack of demonstrated interest.
  • Application essay errors.
  • Poor fit.
  • Academic integrity concerns.
  • Competition.

1. Failure to Meet High GPA or Test Score Standards

In its latest admissions survey, published in 2019, the National Association for College Admission Counseling asked four-year colleges how important they deemed a number of admission decision factors for prospective first-year students. Course grades were deemed to be of “considerable importance” to 74.5% of the 447 schools that responded, the highest percentage reported for any factor.

Though more colleges have gone test-optional in recent years, almost half of respondents said admission test scores, specifically the ACT and SAT, were considerably important.

Applicants should understand how important grades and test scores are in the eyes of admissions officers, particularly at more selective schools, some experts say.

“The term ‘holistic review’ is one of the best marketing terms created in college admissions,” Nat Smitobol, a college admissions counselor at IvyWise, wrote in an email. “It gives students the sense that anyone has a chance, which is not true – especially at the most selective institutions. GPA and test scores are the most common reasons why someone would be eliminated quickly without a comprehensive review.”

2. Insufficient Academic Rigor

Colleges want students who challenge themselves academically. Admissions officers are less inclined to admit students who breezed through standard-level courses, experts say.

“Obviously schools will look at your GPA, but what they’re really looking at is your transcript, not just the average of your grades,” Brian Galvin, the chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors, wrote in an email. “If your school offers a wide array of AP and Honors courses and you didn’t take many of them, you can have a perfect GPA but you won’t get the credit for academic excellence you might expect.”

Most colleges require entrants to have taken a set number of core courses in high school. For example, the University of Iowa generally requires first-year students to have had four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of social studies, two years of the same world language and three years of science to be considered for admission. Admissions officers look at transcripts to ensure that applicants fulfill their admission criteria.

3. Lack of Demonstrated Interest

For admissions teams, finding qualified students is only half of the battle. They also need to ensure that enough of those admitted actually enroll. As a result, colleges may give favorable judgment to applicants who they think are more likely to attend, Galvin says.

“Admitting great students who don’t enroll means that other great students on the waitlist start making other plans, and the fall’s entering class misses out on that quality it could have had,” he says. “So schools really do look at how often you’ve visited campus or attended virtual tours and events; they want to see specifics in your essays about why you want to attend that school.”

4. Application Essay Errors

While students can make mistakes on any application material, experts find that blunders are most prevalent in essays.

“The most common errors we find are in a student’s essay,” Mark Steinlage Jr., director of the office of admissions at Saint Louis University in Missouri, wrote in an email. “They either rush through it and/or don’t proofread, which results in many spelling errors, unintentional auto-corrects or saying they’ll be a great fit at a competitor school when they meant to change it to SLU.”

Frequent grammatical hiccups can demonstrate inattentiveness or even carelessness. But according to DJ Menifee, vice president for enrollment at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, they may also raise another concern: that a student does not have the writing capabilities needed to succeed at a particular institution.

5. Poor Fit

Fit is a two-way street. Just as students look for schools that fit their interests, schools look for students who fit theirs. Colleges seek students who can help them meet their institutional objectives, Pickett says.

“The mission of a public institution is to educate the people in their state first and foremost,” he says. “For private universities, their mission and value statements should guide their priorities. The main goal on a residential college campus is to admit a student body who wants to contribute to the academic and social culture in your community.”

Some admissions teams target applicants with specific qualities that may indicate their ability to contribute to a school’s culture. For example, the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, a Jesuit institution, likes to see service experience on applicant resumes, according to Cornell LeSane, vice president for enrollment management.

6. Academic Integrity Concerns

Admissions teams want to be assured that a transcript accurately reflects the capabilities of the student who submitted it. LeSane says records of cheating or plagiarism can lead to rejection. In some instances, students with a record of such mistakes may be forgiven. LeSane notes that context matters when it comes to questioning an applicant’s academic integrity record.

“Something that might happen in ninth grade is very different from 11th or 12th grade, or something that happened once is very different from something that happened multiple times,” he says.

7. Competition

Exceptional grades and test scores sometimes are not enough to ensure acceptance. At particularly selective institutions, students often need “standout factors,” Galvin says.  Galvin says leadership positions and college-level research experience on a resume can grab the attention of admissions officers looking beyond transcripts.

“Competitive schools will almost always have lots of ‘lookalike’ students – pools of students with essentially the same transcripts from the same state or region looking to pursue the same major or field of study,” he says. “And with more of those students than they can accept, they’re looking for differentiators to prioritize admitting some over others.”