When colleges tell you, “Your application is incomplete.”

Here’s a scenario that plays out every year for many college applicants:

You’ve submitted the application and the essays to a college you want to attend. You’ve asked teachers to send letters, counselors to send transcripts, and testing companies to send scores. You thought you were done, ready to move on to the next application (or to celebrate your end to application season).

And then you get an email from the college:

“According to our records, your application is incomplete.”

That’s usually followed by a description of what’s currently missing.

Here are five tips to help you if you receive a similar message:

1. Don’t panic.
Some colleges do a much better job than others at minimizing the horror a message like this can elicit, but regardless of the tone, these notices don’t necessarily mean that you or someone else screwed up. And unless you ignore it, it almost never means that your candidacy has been damaged. Colleges are receiving thousands (and thousands) of individual pieces of information that real human beings then need to sort and file into the appropriate students’ records. The occasional missing item is a normal part of the process even when kids (and counselors, teachers, and testing companies) have done everything they were asked to do.

2. Read the message carefully.
Some families get so alarmed by the initial news that they ignore relevant details and instructions that follow. Read the entire message. Does it tell you what’s missing? Are there specific instructions to follow so you can update the information? Is there a number to call if you have questions? Read—and follow—those instructions carefully. They’ll make it easier for you and help you get your application updated as quickly as possible.

3. Confirm that the information has been sent.
Review your application confirmation. Double check with your counselor or teacher(s) or testing companies to verify that they sent what you asked them to send. And if something has not yet been sent, do not escalate into rage (more on that in #4). Colleges don’t punish kids for someone else’s mistakes. Instead, focus on the task at hand and communicate calmly and clearly that a college is still waiting on this information.

4. Do not yell at your counselor.
In fact, yelling at anyone during this time probably won’t help anything. But as far as your counselor is concerned, please don’t do it. It’s probably not justified, it’s never nice, and it could actually hurt your chances of admission to college, as Patrick O’Connor so expertly reminds families here.

5. Reach out to the college to update them.
As usual, communication with the admissions office should always come from the student, not the parent. Thank the college for alerting you, then tell them what you’ve discovered or what steps you’ve taken to ensure that the missing information has been sent. A communication like that usually makes its way into you file, and it will be an effective reminder to the colleges that you’re doing everything within reason to make your file complete.

Remember, this happens all the time. It’s frustrating, but normal. Respond productively and appropriately, and you’ll almost certainly soon find out that your application is now complete.