This was written by Steve Cohen, co-author of the new book, “Getting In! The Zinch Guide to College Admissions and Financial Aid in the Digital Age.”
By Steve Cohen
This year’s college admission sweepstakes is going to be insane. Odds are it may be even worse than last year – where the term sweepstakes was sadly appropriate – when six of the eight Ivy League schools had acceptance rates under 10 percent.
The Ivies weren’t alone in this selectivity jag: Stanford also accepted fewer than 10 percent of applicants. And a more than a dozen other colleges accepted fewer than 15 percent of kids who applied.
Unfortunately, many parents are navigating this world wearing blinders. They’re operating on rumor, wishful thinking, or outdated notions of how the system worked when they applied. Let’s address the top 10 myths.
Myth #1: Colleges are looking for the well-rounded kid. Sorry, no; they’re looking for the well-rounded class. Colleges put together their entering class as a mosaic: a few great scholars for each academic department; a handful of athletes; some musicians, dancers, and theater stars; a few for racial and economic diversity; some potential club leaders, etc. Colleges want a kid who is devoted to – and excels at – something. The word they most often use is passion.
Myth #2: It is a seller’s market.
Believe it or not, you are in a better position than you realize. That doesn’t mean you can play off Yale against Princeton, unless you are a phenomenal applicant; or USC against UCLA, if you are a very good one. But only about 65 colleges nationwide reject more applicants than they accept. Among the remainder, there are still many excellent and well-regarded institutions. And this is the group you want to focus on in terms of your “possible” choices (vs. your “reaches”).
Myth # 3: Essays don’t really matter.
The essay is an incredible opportunity to say something positive and memorable about yourself. Your grades are already pretty much set. Your SAT or ACT scores are what they’re probably going to be. And yet most kids waste the opportunity of the essay.
We know that many kids wait until the last minute to write their application essays. That is only part of the problem. Even those students who get started early – whether self-motivated or nagged to near death by their parents – never leave enough time to rewrite the essay. Writing is easy; rewriting is hard. And essays deserve to be rewritten several times.
Lots of kids think the objective is to write about something that will “impress” the admission office. In part that is true, but what impresses an admission officer is an essay that conveys something positive about the applicant; that allows the committee to get to know the kid just a bit from those few pieces of paper. The essay is an opportunity to provide a different perspective about the applicant, a reason to accept a kid. It is an opportunity not to be wasted.
Myth #4: Interviews don’t really count.
Most large colleges – and all the Ivy League schools – have done away with on-campus interviews. (Many do, however, offer alumni interviews.) If a college offers the opportunity for an interview, it is not really “optional.” It is a must do.
Failure to take advantage of an interview sends a message to the college that you’re not really that interested in the school. And because there are lots of kids with credentials similar to yours, colleges will absolutely prefer a student who does an interview over someone who doesn’t. Similarly, colleges will react more positively to a student who has spent some time thinking about why a particular college interests them and why they are right for that school. Which means: do some homework and practice for the interview. You don’t want to sound robotic, but you also don’t want to suggest that you haven’t given real thought to why you want to attend that college.
Myth #5: Asking for financial aid always hurts.
At some colleges, asking for financial aid has no impact on the admission decision. These are called need-blind schools. At other schools, the need for financial aid can impact an admission decision positively or negatively.
Schools will tell you which process they use. Know, too, that there is more money available – in grants and subsidized loans – than you probably realize, even for middle-class families. But you have to apply for it.
Myth #6: Early decision is only for legacies and kids who are absolutely sure where they want to attend.
Early decision – where you apply early to just one school and are contractually bound to attend if you are accepted – can double or even triple your chances of admission. It is also a strategy used by most of the top prep school and private college counselors.
The kids who use the early admission option typically aren’t any more certain about the “perfect fit” of a particular place. But they know that their odds of getting in are way better and are advised to suck it up and make a decision about where to apply. If a college turns out to be a poor fit, you can always transfer.
One important caveat: although the odds of admission are much better for kids who apply early decision, it is a not a strategy to employ for a “reach” college.
Myth #7: You better have an impressive list of extracurricular activities and community service.
Kids – often egged on by their parents – think that they need a laundry list of extracurricular activities, sports, and a summer experience volunteering as a latrine builder in Belize in order to get into a top college.
Absolutely not true. Colleges, in putting together that well-rounded class, want to see passion and commitment. One or two activities which you’ve dedicated yourself to and where you’ve achieved a leadership position is far more impressive than a laundry list of activities where you’ve just dabbled.
In terms of community service, most high schools require some sort of community service. And many middle- and upper-middle class families think that it will impress admission officers if junior has volunteered at a local hospital or participated in some summer program abroad. Sorry, neither typically has much impact on an admission office – unless it is a multi-year or “above and beyond” commitment that shows passion and leadership.
Myth #8: Admission officers are never going to check my Facebook page.
Don’t bet on it! Some colleges have an admission offices dedicated to checking out applicants’ Facebook pages. In an admission pool of a gazillion kids with terrific credentials, colleges typically look for reasons to reject a kid. Having a Facebook page with “inappropriate” photos is an easy reason to reject someone. A simple rule: if your grandmother would be embarrassed by you Facebook posting, make sure it comes down.
Myth #9: Get those VIP Recommendations in Early.
There is a well-established saying in the admission world: the thicker the folder, the thicker the kid. Do not ask VIP’s – Congressmen, corporate CEO’s, members of the college’s board of trustees – to write recommendations for your kid unless your child has actually worked for that person in a real and substantive context. Colleges want teacher recommendations – teachers who can provide insight into the student’s interests,strengths and growth.
Myth #10: Forget the “top” colleges; they’re way too expensive.
Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton all have sticker prices in excess of $60,000 a year. They also have healthy endowments and strong commitments to helping students afford their colleges. Students who attend these – and many other “top” colleges – find that they receive more financial aid and graduate with little or no student debt. In fact, well-known “expensive” colleges are often less costly to attend than “second tier” or even state colleges.
Every college is now required by Federal law to have a financial aid calculator on the college’s website. These tools will help you really understand how much financial aid your family will probably receive from the college.
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