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Articles / Applying to College / Mistakes College Process Rookies Make

Mistakes College Process Rookies Make

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Oct. 25, 2016

For you high school seniors heading to college out there, this is your first and only time that you will be going through the undergraduate college application process. This can be quite intimidating for rookies.

For you parents who are going through the process for the first time because your son or daughter is your first born, this is your rookie year, too. It can be a scary time.

Of course, if you are reading this, you probably already know that you have a friend and tremendously helpful resource in College Confidential, especially with CC's awesome discussion forum. However, even with the help of such stellar components, it's still possible to make critical mistakes as the application process unfolds.

So, in order to give you a heads-up about some missteps to avoid, I thought I would share some insights from a helpful article along with a few comments from seasoned veterans. Let's start with the article.

The Washington Post's Jeffrey Selingo recently revealed The four biggest mistakes students make when applying to college. Granted, there are a number of other mistakes you could make, but these four, at least in Selingo's view, are the biggest.

I'll list them here, make some comments about each, and then post some feedback from the CC forum thread where I posted this article. To set the stage, here is Selingo's introduction, which includes a shameless plug for his new book:

A rite of fall has arrived — it's college admissions season for this year's high-school seniors. As I've traveled around the country in recent weeks to talk about my new book, There Is Life After College, high-school students and their parents have been asking me plenty of questions about the college search process, completing their admissions applications and applying for financial aid.

One thing that has struck me about the questions is how little some students and parents know about the colleges and universities they're considering. While we're inundated with more college rankings than ever before, it seems that hasn't made us better consumers.

Colleges and universities have benefited from this confusion in the marketplace: They know more about the prospective student than the prospective student knows about them. It's in your interest to change that balance and learn as much about the college you're considering as possible …

First up:

– Delaying the campus visit until the spring.

I've written extensively here on Admit This! about the absolute necessity to visit colleges to which you'll be applying, or even are considering. My ongoing mantra has always been, “You've got to trod the sod!" Yes, Virginia, you have to actually set foot on campus to get that legendary “gut" feel for the place where you just might possibly be spending four (or more) school years.

Timing is a crucial issue too, as Selingo notes:

“… Unless you're applying to a half dozen colleges in all corners of the country — making visits burdensome because of time and finances — make an attempt to see as many campuses as you can this fall or winter. A physical campus filled with students and faculty members feels and looks much different than the carefully crafted online virtual tours now offered by most colleges …

“… ask questions. No student or parent wants to be the annoying one that holds up tours, but I'm always surprised at how few questions — especially about academics — are asked of student guides. For example, ask how many students work on semester-long projects or research with faculty members. Do students receive prompt feedback on academic performance? How often do students talk with advisers or faculty members about their career plans?" …

Forum posters say:

– I never saw the benefit of visiting schools, at least for myself, because I always dislike places the first time I see them. I visited my school twice because it's close to where my parents live, but it looked completely different on the tour than it looks to me now.

– I think some people delay visits until spring so they know which schools accepted their child. Some probably can't afford to travel to all the schools on their child's application list and only visit the ones the student might actually attend. Others may just not want to spend the money, they don't have the time due to job responsibilities, fall sports, or family commitments, or they don't want their kid to fall in love with a campus until they have an acceptance.

– Delaying visits means students may waste their time applying to schools that they don't really like when they do visit. Sometimes they end up with no good choices in the spring with this strategy. Also, my kids had ECs with heavy spring commitments. State tournaments for the things they did were in the spring. And seniors are often captains or critical contributors to their teams.

A second mistake:

– Considering only research universities for undergraduate research.

Although Selingo's caution is referring to universities that are known for their significant research, such as Penn State, Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, Cal Berkeley, etc., I believe that this mistake can also block applicants from considering the possible advantages of smaller schools, those known as liberal arts colleges (LACs). Quoting the author, who also agrees with my suggestion regarding LACs:

“… Don't be fooled by the term “research university." For the most part, undergraduates will never have a chance to work on those projects that bring so much prestige to the universities; those are reserved for graduate students. Undergraduates might not even meet those star professors because research universities also bring in a steady stream of graduate students to teach introductory undergraduate courses.

“Undergraduate research is critical to success after college. Studies have found that project-based learning stimulates critical thinking, gives students a better understanding of what they learned from a lecture, and allows them to work in situations with uncertain results. But if you really want to work with faculty members on research projects, even in the sciences, you're much better off going to a college that focuses on undergraduate education, like a small liberal-arts college."

From the forum:

– “Don't be fooled by the term 'research university.' For the most part, undergraduates will never have a chance to work on those projects that bring so much prestige to the universities; those are reserved for graduate students…But if you really want to work with faculty members on research projects, even in the sciences, you're much better off going to a college that focuses on undergraduate education, like a small liberal-arts college."

This may apply to some research universities, but is way too general. My kid is a freshman at MIT, and only his first semester, but he's already been approached by one professor about conducting research within UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program). Caltech has a similar program called SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship). So, research opportunities for undergraduates abound at these tippy top STEM-focused universities.

Mistake #3:

– Ignoring life after college when choosing a college.

“… Be sure the college you're considering thinks of career development as a four-year journey, not just an office you visit the second semester of your senior year. Internships while in college are more critical than ever to securing a job after graduation. Ask colleges you're considering about their internship or co-op programs and how and where students get such experiences.

“Also ask about job placement figures and don't just let them give you a generic figure that some 90 percent of their students are employed or in graduate school six months after they graduate. Dig deeper into those statistics: How many graduates are employed full-time? How many are employed in their field of study? What's the placement rate by major? If colleges can't answer such questions, you might want to look elsewhere."

This can be a matter of “Who do you trust?" Placement statistics can sound impressive but, as Selingo advises, don't just be satisfied with a simple percentage. These placement numbers are what caused such a furor for some for-profit colleges, many of which are now history thanks to their deceptive practices. It's a tough world and you and your family are about to make a large investment in your future, where you will be released from the shields of ivy walls. Be a careful consumer.

From a forum poster:

– I think there's some merit to choosing a college in a location where you might want to live. You will have more opportunities to interact with local companies. On the other hand, college is a chance to see more of the country/world if you want to.

And finally, number four:

– Getting your heart set on one place before the financial-aid offer.

Speaking of hearts, this can be a heart-breaker. In my work with applicants over the years, I've seen many dreams shattered because of deficient, sometimes insulting, financial aid offers. This is particularly true for applicants applying to out-of-state universities, where aid offers are usually consistently poor. This is also where Net Price Calculatorscan help prevent heart breakage, in addition to a lifetime of student loan debt. Get a ballpark idea of what level of aid for which you may be eligible before you visit and/or apply. Selingo says:

“… New York University, one of the most expensive institutions in the country, called several thousand prospective students who were accepted after they got their financial-aid offers. They focused on students who had a big gap between what NYU offered in aid and what the family was expected to pay. NYU essentially wanted to encourage the students to look elsewhere, because while the university might be a good academic fit, it wasn't a good financial fit.

“The calls had almost no impact on a student's decision to enroll, and after a few years, NYU ended the outreach. Most parents didn't want to disappoint their children. Instead of telling them to go to a less-expensive school, they encouraged their sons or daughters to take out bigger loans, or the parents took out loans themselves to help subsidize the degree.

“Choosing a college is an emotional decision for most teenagers, and they don't know the cold-blooded financial reality until it's too late, usually after they begin paying their student loans. But if students have several choices at various price points, they are better able to figure out which one is the best academic fit and the best financial fit when it comes time to make a decision." …

To the CC forum:

– … I found the reader comments entertaining. They hit home with talk of middle class families not having many options for aid if your kid cannot be part of the 5% of kids that get accepted into top tier schools. Being a fill pay parent is hard in a time when all you hear about is how much money there is out there available and how one should not look at the sticker price.

– You should look at the sticker price, but it can also pay to look at potential merit awards. There IS money out there for middle class – or any income – families, you just have to accept that it's not (likely) not going to be at the highest-name-recognition school your kid gets into. It depends on what is important to each family/kid. We recognized early on that a school like BC, which only offers merit to the very top students and where we wouldn't be eligible for need-based aid, was not an option even though it was within range for possible acceptance. We targeted less well-known schools that wanted high stats kids, and both kids were offered substantial merit money at multiple schools.

– This is the primary cause of the so called student debt crisis! Some of these students are the ones being interviewed on TV 10 years after graduation whining about how their student loans are ruining their lives.

– … I would add that targeting schools that will be affordable and making them at least a third of “the list" is key to making sure the student has choices, even if the merit offers do not come through. DS applied to 6 schools. Two were affordable without any merit. Two were affordable with generous merit. Two were lottery tickets as far as affordability. In the end he had 3 schools that he could attend without loans.

– … number 4. happens a lot among foreign students and the results can be even more crippling than it can be for domestic students. Parents would take out a BIG loan in their home country-which has higher interest rate than school loan-sell their house, land etc etc because of prestige.

Yes, as one poster notes, check out the article readers' comments. Some good insights there.


Remember: You don't have to be Rookie of the Year to have a successful college application process. All you need is some good preparation, some common sense, and access to world-class resources like College Confidential. It's time to get to work!


Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles.

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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