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Don’t trust your friends’ advice on getting into college — and other tips from admissions experts


It’s that time of year again when high school seniors have to seriously turn their attention to applying to college — at least those who intend to go to college and who haven’t already started obsessing on the process. Every year college admissions counselors try to help kids put their best foot forward to colleges and universities — even when students don’t listen and think they know better. Here, in the spirit of being helpful, is some advice from the experts, college admissions counselors who have learned these tips the hard way. The advice was compiled by Brennan Barnard,

How college admissions has turned into something akin to ‘The Hunger Games’

By Brennan Barnard

Another academic year is just about upon us.  The Common Application—the tool with which many seniors will apply to college—has gone live for the high school class of 2017, as have other college applications, and now, high school seniors can expect to be inundated with emails, letters and texts from college admission offices encouraging them to submit an application “as soon as possible!”

What should their reaction be?  Take a deep breath and don’t become anxious. Refuse the false assumption that your classmates have already done everything.

Summer is the perfect time to research and even visit colleges, and summer is not over yet!  It is wise to start writing drafts of college essays and reviewing for standardized tests, but it is also a great opportunity to step off the educational treadmill and gain perspective.  Students should think about what they want and how they are going to be intentional and balanced about pursuing their goals.

I recently asked fellow high school counselors and college admission deans for advice they would give your parents about searching and applying to college.  Over-packaged and unauthentic college applicants discourage admissions professionals to a degree they seldom admit.  Educators are concerned about the mental and emotional health of young people and the often-limited perspective with which students view higher education.

Here is some straightforward advice from college admissions counselors and deans who will be reading student applications and shepherding teens through this experience offer straightforward feedback about how best to approach the college search.

For Students….

“Stop worrying about what your friends think! This is your college search and your education. You need to discover for yourself whether a school is a match.”

“Just because you haven’t heard of a college, doesn’t mean it isn’t ‘good.’ College is what you make of the experience, not the experience that is handed to you. You are going to be fine wherever you end up, as long as you put some effort into it.”

“Deadlines are real.”

“Be open minded – there are SO MANY excellent schools out there!”

“It’s OK to admit you don’t know what you want.  In fact, you probably shouldn’t know what you want.  Everyone around you who says they wished they had been more directed and goal-oriented when they applied to college has forgotten what it was like to be a senior in high school.”

“The U.S. News and World Report is a list of schools. It has no bearing on the type of experience you will have nor the type of person you will become by the time you graduate.”

“Relax!! It will all be okay!  Believe in yourself and your abilities and things will work out.”

“Failure is the bedrock of learning. Embrace your failures as opportunities.”

“Trust your gut. Get out of your comfort zone. Don’t put artificial boundaries on yourself.  VISIT SCHOOLS! Finally, there are lots of schools that are ‘the one.’”

“If you focus exclusively on your reach schools, you’re likely to be disappointed, and if you can’t find more likely options that you’re truly excited about, among the over 3,000 options, you have no one to blame but yourself.”

“Let us know what you are feeling. This can be a stressful time; let us help you.”

“When I recommend you apply to a school with more than a 30 percent acceptance rate, I am not saying that you are not ‘good enough.’”

“No matter what you believe right now, I am not encouraging you to ‘lower your expectations’ because I don’t believe in your intelligence, drive, compassion, and overall greatness.  I am encouraging you to think more broadly because I have enough experience in this field to know where a student with your record of academic and extracurricular accomplishments and your particular interests will and will not be a competitive applicant and a happy student.  I believe it is more important to experience and enjoy all the benefits that your high school education offers you than it is to spend four years thinking only about what it can get you.”

“Don’t be a lemming! Embrace (and apply to) colleges you and your friends have not heard of.”

“College admissions is not fair, and there is nothing you can do to change this.  Some of the decisions being made about your application have little/nothing to do with you — it has to do with institutional priorities, who else is in the applicant pool, and what the board of that particular college is telling the admission office it wants/needs.   College admission is also not an indication of your self-worth as a human being.  You are more than the bumper sticker your parent will put on his/her car.  Challenge yourself to learn about at least one or two new colleges every month of your search.”

“You can only attend one college.  You only need to be admitted to one college.  If every college on your list is one you can afford and where you will be successful, you have accomplished what you set out to do when the first one admits you.”

“Too many times students focus on where they didn’t get in, rather than where they did.  We hear them say, ‘I just thought I would have more choices.’  Remember: you had more than 3,000 four-year colleges to chose from at the start of this process, and you chose these.  Reciprocate the love from the colleges that love you, and forget about the rest.”

“After 21 years at this, I can no longer count the number of students who were devastated when they didn’t get into their ‘first choice’ college, then ended up thriving at the school they attended instead.  Year after year, we hear from those alums who say that they can’t imagine themselves at any other college.  Everything happens for a reason, even if the reasons aren’t clear at first.”

“Just because you attended an elite independent school, that doesn’t mean that you deserve a spot at an Ivy. “

“’You just never know,’ and ‘It’s worth a shot,’ are not good strategies.”

“Be grateful…grateful that you are even having the conversation about where to attend college. Most in this world do not get that opportunity. Thank your parents.”

“You do not run the house because you do not pay the bills. Your parents are in charge at this point.”

“You are going to college, not to prison. If you don’t like it you can transfer.”

“College offers so many opportunities.  Go out and test your wings and find out what you really can do when you fully engage in the four years you are given to explore, learn, and develop relationships with faculty and peers — it’s an awesome thing!”

“None of this will matter in the end.  Be happy!”

“The easiest answer is generally the most boring one.  Do you want to live a boring life?  No?   Then take risks, fail, succeed, take more risks, help your friends, help your enemies; do good in the world.  Make hard choices and ask hard questions.”

“It doesn’t matter what school you go to; what matters is what you do once you’re there.  Pick a place where you’d be happy to wake up every day, where you’ll enjoy yourself, and where you’ll be confident instead of stressed out.”

“You will always lose if you live your life by comparisons to others, and the college process is no different in that regard. Compare yourself to your best self–not to other applicants.”

“The college admission process isn’t fair and neither is life.”

“Enjoy your senior year. It’s the last time (usually) you will live with your parents and be with many of your friends. Revel in it.”

“We are witnessing the corporatization of higher education. Colleges are increasingly advancing and protecting their institutional interests, so try not to take admissions decisions personally, however natural that may be.”

“Be your authentic self!  Don’t bend to the will of your parents or the pressures of packaging yourself for the colleges. “

“I encourage you to have a top group of colleges – not a ‘top choice.’ When someone asks where you want to go to college, tell them ‘I don’t know, but if I’m admitted to any of these five I know I’ll be happy.’ Announcing to the world your one dream school before you’ve been admitted raises the stakes to an unhealthy height. If it’s a reach school, the chances of you being admitted might be slim, and you risk characterizing the school you do end up attending – one you’ll probably love – as a disappointment.”

“Resist strutting around school wearing a college t-shirt before you’ve been admitted. Wait for the fat envelope before you wear the colors of your future school.”

“If you’re beginning your sentence with, “Would colleges rather see…”, then STOP! You’re asking the wrong question!”

“During the college search and application process, you should gain self-awareness and build your skills. Applying to college is not just about filling out forms and marketing yourself to admissions officers at selective schools. By the time you decide on a school, you should know more about why you want to study your future major, how you learn best, and why you think a certain career might be best for you. Believe it or not, the real prize after a successful college search isn’t a fancy window sticker on your parent’s car. When it’s all said and done, you’ll be more mature, skilled and self-aware and ready to thrive in college.”

“Pick some colleges you like. Make sure you’ll get into one. Apply to them. Pick one. Done.”

“Stop talking to your ‘friends.’ They’re giving you bad advice.

“Do better research.”

“There is no such thing as ‘in the middle of nowhere.'” Everywhere is somewhere.”

“Leave home. Go somewhere new and different. Get uncomfortable.”

“Essay writing: Who are you? Sit down and write an essay answering that question. Don’t ask 35 people to edit it for you.”

“Be brave. Take risks. Do the unexpected.”

“You’re only 17 once. Don’t forget to have fun. ”

“Your parents mean well, but please learn to do for yourself.”

“You have your life ahead of you.  How you deal with challenges forms the person who you are and will be.  Life is much more than a brand.  What do YOU do with the opportunities presented to you?  What opportunities do you MAKE with the realities in front of you?    Live overseas for at least a semester while in college.  See America from another side.”

“If the admissions rate is 5 percent, what makes you think that you will be one of the students who is admitted?”

“Just because a school wait-listed you, doesn’t mean that it is better than the ones that accepted you.”

“This is one of the best adventures you will embark on.  Enjoy it!”

“Answer to yourself only while you are young, single, unencumbered and full of curiosity. It doesn’t matter where you attend college but it matters that you earn a degree, test yourself, learn from there who see the world through a different lens and you do all this without drowning in debt.”

“A smaller, thoughtfully assembled and BALANCED list of colleges (one that includes probable, possible and reach schools) will serve you best.”

“Not one of us really knows what we’re worth, so why not assume that you have value as a human being beyond your GPA, tests scores, or college list?”

“Even in the Olympics, not every national champion wins the gold.”

“I already have a bachelor’s degree.  If you want one, I suggest you attend my meetings and start following my advice.”

“This, too shall pass.”

“If you choose to enter a rat race, even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

“Write your essays this summer or suffer as a senior ”

“Life is not fair. So do everything you can to learn to deal with the ups and downs of life.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Set high standards for yourself in college personally, intellectually, socially, and ethically. It’s ok if you don’t achieve those standards, but try and try.”

“This is not the most important decision you will make in your life.”

“The ‘best’ college might not be the best place for you. Know who you are and open your mind.”

“The ideal college fit is like a jigsaw puzzle.  The four pieces – academic, social, co-curricular, and financial – all need to match up for the college to be a ‘good fit.’  The wonderful and difficult news is that most students will find multiple ‘good fit’ colleges where you will be happy and successful.”

“The simple version: Have fun and try your hardest – it’s what I leave my 9 year-old and 6 year-old with when dropping them on the doorstep of school each morning.  The version for teenagers: Make the effort, at every turn, to be the best version of yourself – on YOUR terms.”

“Be your own self-advocate, don’t expect your parents or guidance counselor to remember things and do everything for you.”

“Please don’t let the college application process dictate every decision you make.”

“It is easy to become infatuated with one college.  Understand that it is only infatuation, you will likely only fall in love with the institution you attend.”

“Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

“The college admission process is not instantaneous. Applying to colleges will be a lesson in patience.”

“Listen to your parents/guardians/family. They have raised you up until this point and probably have a good idea of how you work, learn, and thrive.”

“HAVE FUN. Good gracious, you are in high school and you have the rest of your life to grow up. Be active in what you enjoy.”

“Be happy with what you have. Rather than fighting with me about the one rejection letter you received, focus on all of the good news you received and what institution is going to be lucky enough to have you enroll.”

“It is your responsibility to make certain that you are giving the best representation of yourself to colleges and universities where you are applying, and nobody else’s.”

“When a school admits fewer than 30 percent of its applicants, a lot of GREAT students are not admitted. It doesn’t mean you did something wrong or that we’re horrible people. There just aren’t enough seats for all we like in our classrooms.”

“When you visit college campuses, ask questions.  Connect with your admission counselor, as that person likely has significant impact over your admission decision.”

“Step up and be an adult. You’re about to go to college, so you need to start to speak for yourself, to advocate for yourself. Don’t let your parents do your work. You don’t deserve a merit award if you can’t even ask admissions about it, or don’t even write your own appeal.”

“Showcase your uniqueness in the college admission essays, as it is a great way for counselors to understand a bit more about your personal background.”

“You should view admission counselors as partners in this process rather than adversaries. Believe it or not, we constantly look for reasons to say yes to applicants.”

“You have much more control in this process than you think. Take ownership of it and have fun.”

“Don’t feel the need to send in every single award, accomplishment, update, etc. possible.  We have a saying…’Tthe thicker the file, the more complicated the applicant.’  Stay within guidelines, we have them for a reason!”