For students and their families, the junior and senior years in high school can be exciting and stressful. Suddenly, it seems as though “life beyond high school” is THE hot topic of conversation. And for students planning to attend college, there is no shortage of myths and half-truths about how to successfully navigate the college application and admissions process.
During their reporting on the latest admissions scandal, these myths and half-truths have been perpetuated by our national news media. Their lack of discourse around the educational purpose of college is troubling. So, too, is the limited coverage about the research demonstrating that “where you go to college is not who you will be.” The families implicated in operation varsity blues are extreme outliers, but the faulty premise under which they sought admission, that one’s life is more successful if one attends a select handful of “brand name” colleges, is sadly quiet common. I worry that our country’s fixation on this scandal is about the salaciousness of the allegations at the expense of a greater conversation about how to generate a life of substance.
During my 14 years at University Prep, an independent 6-12 school in north Seattle, I’ve had the privilege of walking alongside hundreds of students during this important time in their lives. Below, I’ve collected and debunked the top 10 most common myths about college admissions.
I hope these facts will allow you and your student to approach the college admissions process with a calmer, more confident, and reassuring picture of your student’s college prospects.
As Frank Sachs, the former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling is famous for saying: “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”
- There is a perfect college.
Reality: There are 4,000 colleges and universities in this country; there are many perfect colleges, and your student will be admitted to one or more of them!
- College selectivity is at an all-time high.
Reality: Despite the media’s fixation on highly selective college admissions, fewer than 100 colleges in the U.S. accept less than 25% of their applicants. The vast majority admit more than 50% of their applicants.
- Grades are the most important factor in college admissions.
Reality: Of course grades are important, but you can never divorce the quality of the curriculum from the GPA. The rigor of courses, in conjunction with grades, are the most important factors in admission decisions. Most colleges like to see four years of all five academic subjects: Math, Science, English, History and a Foreign Language on an applicant’s transcript.
- Students compete against their classmates for slots.
Reality: If there are many students from one school that an admissions committee wants to admit, then they will admit them all.
- If a student has attended what is deemed a highly competitive college (i.e., an Ivy League institution), their income will be much higher than one who hasn’t.
Reality: A twenty-year study found that graduates of prestigious colleges did not earn more than graduates of other schools. In terms of future earnings, merely going to college is a larger factor than the school a student attends; 90% of Fortune 500 CEOs did not graduate from Ivy League schools.
- Colleges want students who are exceptional in one extracurricular area.
Reality: Colleges are looking to craft a class that represents society as a whole. They like well-rounded students, but also those who choose to focus on one thing. The most important aspect of a student’s extracurricular resume is the ability to articulate the “why” behind how they spend their time outside of the classroom.
- Test scores are crucial in college admissions.
Reality: How a student does on one three-hour test on one Saturday in the fall does not predict future success. SAT and ACT scores do not measure one’s humanity, nor are they necessarily a measure of hard work. Test scores inform, but do not drive the admissions process. According to the website fairtest, there are over 1000 colleges that are now test optional.
- You have to package a student to play the “admissions game.”
Reality: There is no key, no formula, no index, no magic wand to use to make a student an even more viable college applicant. Applying to college is not about gimmicks; it is about substance. The Making Caring Common Project, of which University Prep is the only independent school member in Washington State, recently released a wonderful guide called Ethical Parenting in the College Admissions Process. In a section titled “follow your ethical GPS,” this guide charges parents to ask: “Who do I want to be and what values do I need to model for my child?”
- If my student is going to attend a highly selective college, they need to start taking standardized tests (SAT and ACT) early to improve their test scores.
Reality: It is better to wait until the late winter or early spring of junior year to take the SAT or ACT because the material covered in the exams — particularly in math and science — is often not taught until the junior year. There will be plenty of time in the fall of the senior year to retake the tests.
- Athletics help students gain admission.
Reality: Only 2% of college students attend college on athletic scholarships. Athletics may be a plus factor, like being a legacy or a leader, but it never trumps a student’s transcript in importance.
In closing, I hope these facts can help you support your student and help them retain perspective in the final years of high school. Remind them (and yourself!), that the true affirmation of who a student is can never be bestowed by a college acceptance letter; rather, it unfolds over a lifetime through hard work, compassion towards others, and a consistent thirst for knowledge.