As summer approaches its end and families start planning for the fall, conversations on college applications heat up in the homes and minds of parents and students. The “college talk,” which inevitably emerges in families’ social gatherings, often creates a great deal of anxiety, uncertainty, and common misconceptions. Let’s dive into a few of the classic “myths” and clarify some of the murky- and often contradicting- information that goes around.
College Myth #1: The more extracurricular activities you do, the better.
This is an outdated perception of what college admission counselors seek in an applicant. Today, the golden formula for extracurricular activities is Depth, Commitment, and Impact. What does this mean? Colleges like students who are dedicated, perseverant, and have grown with and through their experiences. Moreover, they like it when students take initiative and are active participants. In the eyes of admission counselors, these attributes are a good predictor of maturity, consistency, and determination.
College Myth #2: SATs and ACTs are the most important component in a college application.
Standardized tests are one of the pillars of the college application, but not the most important indicator a students’ potential in college. SATs and ACTs can be compared to a sprint– a three-hour sample of a students’ performance. However, admissions committees know that college is not a sprint, it is a marathon! The transcript is often a better indicator of how a student will sustain the effort required in that academic marathon. Don’t think, however, that you can forget about standardized tests! College admissions counselors understand that not all high schools grade in the same way. Therefore, the SAT and ACT tests are valuable standardized measures of student performance.
College Myth #3: It is better to have an A in a regular class than a B in an AP or honors class.
Colleges love to see that students challenge themselves and are willing to take risks with their academic coursework. Because taking APs and honors will fill that box, many students like to load their junior and senior schedules with such classes. If a more demanding course will result in a very slight drop in grades, this is acceptable. However, competitive colleges don’t like Cs and Ds. Therefore, if grades will drop to that extent due to the rigor of the class, it is better to stay in a regular class or take fewer demanding courses. Students should discuss their options with their guidance counselor at school, in order to strike a good balance between rigor and performance.
College Myth #4: A good application is the only thing that matters for admissions.
A good application will, of course, get you at least as far as the ‘maybe’ list and possibly further. However, there is more that you can do to get your foot in the door of your dream school, and that is called “demonstrated interest”. Why does this work? Because colleges like to know that the students who are offered a spot will actually attend. This ratio of offers to enrollment is called “yield,” an important statistic for colleges.
If you demonstrate your willingness to attend by visiting, writing to your regional counselor, or scheduling an interview (if offered), it might help your file pass from the “maybe” pile over to the “yes” pile. Be mindful that admissions officers are very busy people, so don’t overdo by reaching out to them many times or you may end up in the “no” pile. Be aware that highly competitive colleges (ivies, etc.) usually do not track demonstrated interest.
College Myth #5: The college essay is the least important variable in a college application.
Not at all! Colleges admission counselors strive to acquire a holistic understanding of the applicant: their academic performance and potential (transcript and SAT/ACT) what they do in their free time (extracurricular activities), what others think of them (letters of recommendation) and who they are as a person.
What do admissions counselors want to learn from the essay? They want to understand how you think, what shaped you into who you are, what are the values you wrestle with… in essence, who you are beyond the numbers. You might ask, “what drives that curiosity?” Admission officers try their best to create a diverse group in which students can exchange ideas and learn from one another. It is estimated that 40% of the learning in college takes place outside of the classroom! Admissions counselors try to facilitate that learning by selecting students who are self-aware independent thinkers who can reflect upon their experiences. This can only be transmitted through the personal statement, so make sure you really show yourself!
College Myth #6: It is best to ask for recommendations from “important” people.
Unless the VIP or celebrity has a personal connection with the student, and has interacted with him in an academic/professional setting, such a letter will not help in a college application and might even hurt it. Refrain from asking for recommendations from your congressman or the CEO of a multinational company who knows the parents. Admissions officials will probably frown upon such a letter, and likely interpret it as “name-dropping.” Letters of recommendation are supposed to be from someone who knows the student well and worked with him/her on a daily basis. Great recommendations often come from teachers of a core subject in school.
College Myth #7: Applying for financial aid compromises the chances of admissions.
It depends on the student and on the college. Regarding financial aid, some colleges are “need bind” – the application for financial assistance does not interfere at all with the decision of accepting the student. Other colleges are “need-aware” – the decision might be affected by the request for financial aid. This is a complex topic, so make sure you inquire before you draw conclusions.
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