College Admissions Mythology

In most areas of life, common wisdom can be a dangerous thing. One area where the damage can be acute is in college admissions. Many high school students (and many of their parents) depend on peer advice to make crucial decisions about applying to and getting into college. Garnering wisdom from friends and even family isn’t always a bad idea, but when the stakes can run as high as $50,000+ per year, accuracy and currency of data are paramount.

Things today are light years removed from my high school era (back when the earth was still cooling, as I frequently say). Back then, the majority of high school seniors had to depend on school “counselors” (using that term very loosely here) who may have also been tasked with policing attendance and truancy. That was the case for me. I never sat down with my so-called “college advisor” one time during my senior year, or any other year for that matter. He was in charge of chasing truants and was also the assistant boys basketball coach. He hardly had a moment to ponder a sane approach for his college-applicant charges.

The times, they have changed, though. Big time. Now we have all kinds of authoritative help available on the Web. Of course, I’m always inclined to mention College Confidential as one stellar source of up-to-the-second college admissions information. All you have to do is Google “college admissions help” and stand back as a tsunami of links rolls onto your computer screen. However, the point of my post here today is more concerned about my common wisdom caution.

In my view, common wisdom can lead to mythology (see that cool unicorn picture I posted?). Accordingly, for the benefit of the uninitiated in the area of college admissions, let me cite seven college admission myths, from the Washington Post by Jenna Johnson and Valerie Strauss. Maybe they can give you a new grip on that unicorn.

Help is here for the frantic seniors and their parents who are spending practically every waking moment fixated on getting into college (and there are plenty, with more than 3.22 million projected to graduate from high school next year) and for younger students who will eventually be in the same boat. Below we bust some of the most basic — and persistent — myths about admissions that can take applicants in the wrong direction and drive anxiety to unhealthy levels.

1. It’s best to set your heart on one school and really go for it.

There are hundreds of colleges in this country, and most students can find success and happiness at any number of schools. It’s important to be realistic in deciding where to apply. Nearly eight out of 10 college graduates say they would go back to the same college if they had to do it again, according to the American Council on Education …

2. The tuition price listed in brochures is what everyone pays.

Flipping through college guides can be heart-stopping, especially with dozens of private schools now charging more than $50,000 a year for tuition, housing and fees. But that’s just the sticker price. Last year, that rate was reduced by more than 40 percent for the average student through institutional grants and scholarships, according to an industry study …

3. The admissions department adores you.

Many schools dump lots of money into transforming their campus visits into personal experiences, building connections through social media and making average students feel aggressively recruited. They also flood mailboxes with personalized invitations to apply, and are sometimes even willing to waive the application fee. Don’t think this makes you special …

4. It’s best to crowd your application with a volume of extracurriculars.

In most cases, admissions staffers are not impressed by long lists of extracurriculars that fill in every single line on the application. In asking about your out-of-class interests, colleges usually want to hear about your interests, passions and leadership …

5. It’s better to have a high GPA than to take difficult classes.

It’s always better to challenge yourself, even if it means a lower grade …

6. Essays don’t really matter much in the end because grades and test scores are so dominant in admissions decisions.

Don’t believe it. A poorly written, typo-filled essay can kill any application, and a beautiful piece can lift a student over another who looks similar on paper. Yes, college admissions officers can often tell if a student didn’t actually write the essay. Some compare the writing with SAT and ACT essays …

7. Recommendations from famous people can give an applicant a huge boost.

In some cases, recommendations can make a difference. Admissions officers at public colleges will sometimes give a second look at a student if asked by a state legislator who controls education funding. And private schools won’t want to inadvertently upset billionaire donors. But …

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So, I hope you can see that common wisdom sometimes can be common wisdumb. Use your head, your common sense, and those resources that are so abundantly available to you on the Web and in bookstores everywhere.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.