There’s a lot of stress, pressure and confusion surrounding the college admissions process, so it’s only natural that people develop a lot of theories about how it actually works.
The college admissions process is always changing, so something that used to be accurate a long time ago, might not be true at all anymore. Priorities change and vary from school to school, and what may have boosted applications in the past, might deter acceptance today. Still, there are some theories are more common than others.
So if you’ve ever heard a secret admissions tip from a friend of a friend that’s made the process seem more daunting to you, don’t panic. It might not be what you think. We help students and parents demystify the process, and we can start by debunking some common college admissions myths:
- MYTH: Test scores and grades are equally important.
REALITY: Test scores are about half as important as grades.
SATs, SATs, SATs—when people talk about college admissions, they only ever seem to talk about the SAT! But while SATs and ACTs do matter, we tend to overrate just how much. Academic performance on a day-to-day basis over the course of four years shows so much more about potential than one little test. Admissions officers know this. Universities need great students, students who can handle a heavy workload, and understand complex subjects. Grades reflect that, not standardized tests. Scoring a 2400 is great, but straight A’s in AP courses is better.
- MYTH: Colleges want well-rounded students.
REALITY: Colleges want well-rounded student bodies.
Many students try to come across as “well-rounded” on their college applications. They load up on activities across a variety of fields to show varied and diverse interests and skills. But sometimes “varied” and “diverse” can translate into unspecific and unfocused. Hone in on a few activities that really interest you. Focus on places where you can make a genuine impact, and that leave a mark on you as well. Show admissions officers you have something real to contribute to their campus life. They want driven specialists, not aimless wanderers.
- MYTH: Extracurricular activities are for the school year.
REALITY: Don’t slack in the summer.
Over the year, intense involvement with extracurriculars clashes with schoolwork. Over the summer, you have time for more serious involvement. Spend your summer having the kind of character-building, life-altering experiences that really stand-out on an application. Find an internship, or an intensive program. Get immersed abroad, or involved locally. Volunteer in Costa Rica for 8 weeks, or take a writing seminar in New York. Can’t find an opportunity? Make one. Pursue something you feel passionately about. Show admissions officers how serious you are, and how driven you are towards achieving your goals. Don’t just be a casual volunteer; make your commitment clear. Demonstrate a capacity to work on a project in a really substantive way.
- MYTH: The essay is a great place to show studiousness and intellect. Use highbrow, academic language to come across as a serious student. Repeat the same interests and topic throughout to look consistent.
REALITY: The essay is a great place to show personality and character. Write in your own voice to come across as yourself. Say something about yourself not found elsewhere on the application.
Personal statements should be personal. Let your grades speak for your academic prowess and your activity essay reflect your extracurricular interests. The rest of the application shows you understand and care about important topics, concepts, and ideas, and an A in AP English demonstrates your lofty vocabulary. The personal statement is your chance to show admissions officers who you are, not what you know. Check thoroughly for proper grammar—spellcheck doesn’t catch everything!—but otherwise, focus more on expressing yourself than some idea of what a student should be. Instead of reiterating something you mention elsewhere on the application, give the admissions officer the chance to learn something new about you.
- MYTH: Facebook is only for your friends.
REALITY: Colleges can see what you’re up to.
The thing about social media is that it’s social—out there for the world to see. Rules to live by: If you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see it, admissions shouldn’t either. Don’t post anything online you would be embarrassed by at a family reunion. Even check what your friends post about you as well. Through Facebook and Twitter, Tumblr and Livejournal, be careful what your online presence says about you.
- MYTH: You can’t change what type of student you are. Once a B-student, always a B-student.
REALITY: Change your mindset; change your potential.
So, freshman year started off a bit slow. Adjusting to high school took its toll, and now you feel stuck on one track. All your slow start really means is that there is plenty of room for improvement. Think about the student you want to be, and the future you want for yourself, and internalize that image. Let that motivate your actions. Think about how you can usefully contribute to your community, and what subjects interest you. Sell yourself to yourself, and you can do the same to an admissions officer.