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Articles / Applying to College / Admission Fiction

Nov. 9, 2017

Admission Fiction

"Fake news!" Unless you reside on another planet, you've no doubt seen, heard, or tried to hide from that phrase sometime within the last year or so.

Then there's that famous Seinfeld episode where Elaine pointedly informs Jerry that her actions were "Fake! Fake! Fake!" The way the weather has been behaving recently in my neck of the woods has me believing that the forecasts have been fake, fake, and fake.

Therefore, friends, I must take time for a post about what my title refers to as admission fiction. That would be those untruths floating around out there about getting into college. There are a lot of them, but today I'll target just some of the more prominent misleading mythologies.

Why is it important to be aware of these false premises? For starters, believing that some are true can derail an otherwise promising college process, resulting in not only massive disappointment but also significant mismatches in the area of college selection.

Every year I see many lists of colleges from high school seniors who are about to begin their entry into the college admissions sweepstakes. Many of those lists are badly considered and, consequently, punishingly constructed, and perfectly poised for defeat. As I delve into the logic behind these "dream sheets," as I call them, I find that almost all have been created based on at least some degree of false premises, fakes news, if you will.

Thus, my mission, as it has been in the past, is to highlight a few of the biggest offenders in the admission fiction file. I'll cite two sources, both of which can start you off on your quest for reality and truth.

First, Steve Cohen, writing in Forbes, expresses his opinions about the three biggest lies in college admission:

  • Standardized test (SAT and ACT) scores are less and less important.
  • Asking for financial aid won't have an impact on the admission decision; and
  • There is a level playing field in college admissions.

He goes on to substantiate his nominations, noting in part:

[Regarding Lie #1]: The Three Card Monte Test Score Range – Almost every college publishes the range of SAT scores that kids in the last entering class achieved. The schools call this the 25th to 75th percentile range. In other words, 50% of last year's entering class had scores within this range.

So if a kid sees a school's 25th-75th range as 1280 to 1430, the student might reasonable think that their 1300 SAT score gives them a fair shot at admission. Wrong. In reality, the bottom 25% (below 1280) is reserved for the school's “special interests": athletes, students of color, development (big donors.) “To have a real shot," says Muska “you really have to be at the upper end of that range."

For example, Vanderbilt reports its 25-75 SAT range as 1380 – 1550. In reality, most of its unhooked admittees had SAT scores above 1500. ...

Lie #2: Asking for financial Aid Won't Affect the Admissions Decision

Ah, for the good old days – the days before the most recent Lehman-inspired stock market crash. Back then, when a college said it was “need blind" it probably was need blind. That meant admission decisions were made without the admissions staff knowing whether the kid was applying for financial aid.

Today, more and more college admission officers want – and need – to know whether the kid can pay full-freight. And if there is a choice between two virtually-identical applicants – one who needs financial aid and one who doesn't – the fat envelope is going to go to the kid who can pay full tuition.

Some very good schools – such as Wesleyan – are coming forward and admitting that they can't afford to be 100% need-blind. “More than a handful of schools are not being honest however," states Muska. “So kudos to them. Families need this transparency from colleges." ...

Lie #3 – It's a Level Playing Field

“I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here." -- Let's go back to the foreign student situation. It should be no surprise that many foreign students applying to American colleges have very high SAT scores. Colleges love that. Unfortunately, a shockingly large number of Chinese applicants also lie about their English abilities and academic transcripts. And colleges are pretending they don't know this. That combination of high Scores and full tuition are simply too enticing to ignore.

Colleges want the well-rounded class, not the well-rounded kid – The worst-kept secret of college admission is that colleges are looking for the well-rounded class, not the well-rounded kid. They want some real scholars for every department; some superb athletes; some great musicians and actors; a few rich kids whose parents can build a library wing; and some legacies to keep the alumni happy. The applicant who is attractive but not really special in any one category is going to have a much tougher time getting in.

Early decision really does improve one's chances – but you better be in the ballpark. If you look at the admission rates at selective colleges, a kid has a much better chance of getting in via early decision than through the regular admission pool. But there are two caveats to that overall pronouncement: ...


Steve pines for the good old days. Yes, 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. Accordingly, for my second citation, here are seven college admission myths, from the Washington Post by Jenna Johnson and Valerie Strauss. Maybe these excerpts can give you a better grip on reality:

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 ...


Okay, then. 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. The above is just a start. Dig deeper. Don't become a flake for the fake!


Be sure to check out all my articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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