Matrix population models (MPMs) are powerful tools for translating demographic and life history information into a form that can be used to address a wide range of research topics, such as projecting population dynamics, evaluating stressor impacts on populations, and studying life history evolution. However, the reliability of such studies depends on the MPM being constructed in a way that accurately reflects the species’ life history. We highlight three errors commonly encountered in published MPMs: (1) failing to include survival in the fertility coefficient; (2) introducing a one-year delay in age at first reproduction; and (3) incorrectly calculating the growth rate out of a stage class. We review the sources of such errors and provide new analyses revealing the impact of such errors on model predictions, using lionfish and American alligator models as examples. To quantify the prevalence of such errors we examined and scored the original publications underlying the models in the COMADRE Animal Matrix Database. The first two errors were found in 34% and 62%, respectively, of the published studies; nearly all were in models that used a “postbreeding census” representation of the life cycle (in which newborns—eggs, neonates, fledglings, etc.—are explicitly included). Of the studies where stages may last longer than one time step, 53% constructed the growth rate using inappropriate formulas for estimating the asymptotic population growth rate or its sensitivity to demographic parameters. These results suggest that further efforts may be required to educate biologists on the construction of MPMs, perhaps in concert with the development of new software tools. Furthermore, the conclusions of many studies that are based on MPMs may need to be re-examined, and synthetic studies using the COMADRE Database need to be accompanied by careful examination of the underlying studies.