College Admissions Mythology

“Common wisdom.” “Common knowledge.” “Traditional approaches.”

I was in a discussion the other day with a mother whose daughter was in the midst of her college application process. It was a rather lengthy discussion that covered just about everything that the woman’s daughter was doing to effect what she thought was the best approach to applying to her candidate colleges, especially in the area of presenting her case, a.k.a. “marketing” her profile.

I took special note of the mother’s use of the three phrases stated at the top of this article. In responding to comments that I made about her daughter’s application process I heard the mother say, “Oh, that’s just common wisdom!” or “I know, that’s common knowledge.” In regards to something else I mentioned, she said, “Ah, yes … she’s using the traditional approaches.”

After our discussion, I got to thinking about the changing dynamics of college admissions these days. There have been some significant milestones lately that have been what some may call “game changers,” in regards to how one should think about getting into college, especially the top schools, such as the Ivy League and other so-called “elites.”

I’m thinking of such things as the test-optional stance of some schools, where applicants don’t have to provide their standardized test scores, if they choose not to do so. How about what I call “interview admissions,” where an on-the-spot admission decision is made as the result of a sit-down discussion between the applicant and admission staff? Also, how about schools with acceptance rates in single digits? This year, it looks like Stanford University will be the first institution to go sub-five percent. That should sober up some overconfident high school seniors out there.

common wisdom

Those are just a few examples of the ever-changing landscape of getting into college here in early 21st Century. What made me think about the effects of conventional/common wisdom as it applies to the college admissions process (and that discussion I had with the about-to-be college parent) is a PR release I received about a new book, Everything you thought you knew about getting into college is WRONG, by Christine VanDeVelde.

First of all, I had to question the first word of that provocative title: “Everything.” Well, I think I know at least a little about getting into college, since I make my living counseling high schoolers and their families on how to do just that. Also, I don’t think that all of my knowledge is “WRONG.” However, I do understand the need to come across with a high-impact title to separate one’s book from among the ocean of others out there that profess “insider” information about the college process.

So, in order to test your alleged knowledge about getting into colleges, and to see just how “WRONG” you might be, here are the top five contentions from VanDeVelde’s book that may challenge your common wisdom, common knowledge, and traditional-approaches strategies to getting in.

The more schools you apply to, the better chances you have of getting in. Not so, according to Christine VanDeVelde. “Colleges are looking for ‘fit,’ and it’s very difficult for a student to demonstrate that they’ve done their research and they’re a good fit if they apply to too many colleges,” says VanDeVelde. The ideal number? Six to 10, max!

Dave says: Some of my clients, against my advice, have applied to 15-20 schools. After the dust settled, it was clear that these obsessive seniors could have done just as well with even a half-dozen carefully chosen and vetted colleges. Plus, they could have saved a lot of money by not having to pay all those ever-rising application fees.

You’re more likely to be accepted if you apply early. Actually, it’s not an advantage to apply (or get accepted) early unless you’re positive you want to attend a particular college. And be sure to know what you’re getting into, warns VanDeVelde. “Select early decisions are binding, meaning once you’ve been accepted you must withdraw all other applications. So, if you’re unsure of where you want to be, your best bet is to apply under regular admission.”

Dave says: Although colleges will tell you that applying early is not an advantage, some statistics show otherwise. Specifically, some schools accept up to 50% (or more) of there incoming classes from early pools. That’s not to say that you don’t stand a good chance in the Regular Decision pools, but in some cases, it is an advantage to apply early. Thus, I would have to append VanDeVelde’s admonition with a carefully considered, “It depends.” Check the stats for a particular college’s history in dealing with their early pools.

Your application must include volunteer activities. While volunteering is a great activity for students, college are looking for passion and purpose. So if you’ve been volunteering at a local soup kitchen since second grade, great. But, if you’ve been working part-time at the mall to help your parents make ends meet, that’s great, too. “Colleges want to admit students who are committed to something. Whether that’s work, traveling, or sports, it doesn’t matter,” says VanDeVelde. “Volunteering twice during senior year will not strengthen your application. Admission officers will know it’s insincere.”

Dave says: In general, I agree with this. It is far better to show that you have been dedicated, long term, to a few activities, rather than displaying traits of being a “serial joiner.” Serial joiners have long lists of clubs and organizations on their so-called brag sheets, hoping that that will impress admission officials. It won’t. Working a part-time job over the course of high school can show a college that you have discipline and focus. Combined with a strong academic record, a few in-depth activities can be a powerful testimonial to the kind of person colleges want to have on campus.

If a college is too expensive, don’t think about applying. The truth is, financial aid can actually make a more expensive college cheaper to attend. VanDeVelde encourages parents and students to dream big. “Don’t toss out your dream colleges because of cost. Applying for financial aid, whether you think you’re eligible or not, is a critical step in the application process. It could change your future. But, keep those affordable colleges on the list, too.”

Dave says: This comes back to my controversial theory of getting into the best and most expensive schools that you can. “Sticker price” is one of the more meaningless terms in higher education. Relatively few families pay what I call “fool” price. If you’re a middle-to-low income family and can present a compelling case for your child through his/her application and financial aid forms, then the top schools are likely to provide surprisingly high financial aid, in the form of need-based (including grants) and/or merit-based (scholarship) support.

The essay is a student/parent collaboration. Absolutely false. This is a student’s one chance to show the admission officers who they are. “The admissions office will know the difference between an essay written by a 17-year-old and one written by a 45-year-old,” warns VanDeVelde. “Mom and dad should only review the essay after it’s completed and offer high-level feedback and comments on grammar. Period.”

Dave says: Agreed. However, colleges haughtily boast that they can tell when a student has had outside help with an essay. Maybe so, but sometimes they can’t. In any case, my advice to application essay writers is to write what you want to say, not what you think they want to hear. It’s okay to get some outside opinions about your essays, but don’t get caught up in the “conventional wisdom” that colleges are looking for Edward Albee-level prose. They aren’t.

Bottom line: Stay on top of current trends in college admissions. Perhaps the best place to do that is College Confidential, where those in the know tend to go.

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Check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.