Getting In: Mistaken Assumptions?

In my humble opinion, conventional wisdom is a lot like stereotypes. They can both lead to miscalculation and, ultimately, disappointment, especially in the confusing and seemingly perilous world of college admissions. One example of conventional wisdom might be the “More is better” mindset. If two letters of reference are required, then four could be twice as impressive. If three Subject Tests are needed, then six . . . And so on.

We’ll never fully know why admissions committees make the decisions they make. There are hundreds of books, blogs, discussion forums, and other avenues of “insights” out there, proclaiming to have insider information about what works and doesn’t work in the college admissions process. But, surprisingly, even the true insiders — those who work on the admissions committees themselves — sometimes don’t follow a strict set of guidelines to admit or deny applicants. It can very often be a very subjective selection process that feels a lot like flying by one’s seat of the pants (no offense to clothing manufacturers out there).

So, I started to search the Web for evidence of erroneous conventional wisdom regarding the process of applying to and getting into college. It didn’t take long to discover an excellent article by Jay Matthews, who has a long track record of pithy opinions on higher education that appear in The Washington Post. His “5 wrong ideas about college admission” make classic sense and call in an air strike on stereotypical conventional wisdom. Here are some key points from what Jay said:

January is the beginning of the college admission season for high school juniors and their parents. It’s just a formality, of course. In this region, the most college-focused in the nation, every season is college admission season.

Energetic and well-informed high school counselors are assembling their notes for upcoming parent meetings. These sessions are usually valuable and informative. Yet, despite all the good data and advice, some false assumptions about college admissions stubbornly survive. You encounter them while dining with friends, surfing the Internet or eavesdropping on the sidelines at youth soccer games.

Here are five of the most resilient and harmful of these wrong ideas about finding the best college for you:

1. Colleges are impressed by a lot of extracurricular activities. What a high school student does outside the classroom is important. Extracurriculars can make the difference when seeking admission to colleges that have three times as many straight-A student applicants as they have space. At one Ivy League college, I heard admissions officers describe applicants as, for instance, the violin-playing quarterback or the math-medalist poet. They never mentioned more than two activities. They wanted depth, not breadth …

2. The more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes and tests, the better. Selective colleges expect applicants to enroll in three to five AP, IB or similar college-level courses and take the final exams. If you like AP, taking 12 of them won’t hurt you but confers no advantage

3. Every high school grade counts. High grade-point averages are vital, but it is possible to get Bs in three or four courses and still have an average above 4.0. The extra weight given AP or IB courses makes the difference. Admissions officers often discount mediocre grades in freshman year, if the student’s record improves after that …

4. A student has little chance to get into a top school without an SAT prep course. I spent a lot of money on the course my daughter took her junior year. These courses teach important things and give students confidence walking into the exam. But we have data showing such courses did little good for students who listened in their high school classes, did their homework and took a few practice SAT exams from the book in their counselor’s office …

5. The harder a college is to get into, the more it will ensure a bright future. It is difficult to persuade tribal primates like us that this isn’t true. We are genetically wired to respect pecking orders. If we see a college listed No. 1, we want to go there. When its admissions rate falls below 10 percent, we are even more excited. Research indicates that the most selective schools look good because they attract so many of the students with character traits, such as persistence and humor, that ensure success …

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Of course, you may say, “Hey, I already knew all of this.” If so, well good for you! However, there are many among the masses out there who insist on operating by way of the path of least resistance, or, as I call it, mob mentality. Don’t just follow the crowd, or you may discover that the beautiful view up ahead is preceded by a steep cliff. Keep your eyes on the Road of Reality!

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