5 myths about college admissions today

College Admissions

By Marilyn C. Morrison, Morrison Educational Consulting

Frantic parents, stressed out students, overworked guidance counselors…welcome to the cutthroat world of college admission!  The process of applying to college has evolved into a confusing and complex maze, very different from what previous high school seniors faced in 1969 or even 1999.  Last year, 2.9 million students graduated from high school, and more than 60% of them chose to pursue a college degree. Admission rates to Ivy League and other highly selective schools have plummeted to new lows. Last year, for example, Yale admitted only 8.3% of its applicants, and Stanford only accepted 12% of the candidates who scored a perfect 800 on the SAT Math exam.

These are scary statistics, causing a nationwide panic among students and parents who worry that such fierce competition for spots at the most prestigious colleges will make a good education unattainable.  These doubts and fears are unnecessary, though, and can be allayed if students simply examine a few of the many myths surrounding college today:

Myth #1:  I will be more successful in life if I go to a famous college.

Not true!  There are over 3,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States, and some of the best educational and collegiate experiences are available at schools that fly under the radar of public fame. You’ve heard of Harvard, Princeton, and UCLA, but what about Lawrence, Whitman, or Goucher?  Top liberal arts colleges such as these offer students small classes, close interaction with professors, and research opportunities that are often unavailable to undergraduates at large universities.  Research conducted by Princeton University economist Alan B. Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale of the Mellon Foundation in 1999 concluded that future financial success correlates with the character traits and individual qualities that students bring to college, not with the selectivity of the college they attended.

Myth #2:  We can’t afford a private college or university.

Depending on the financial aid package offered, the out-of-pocket cost of attending a private college can often be lower than that of a public university.  In a simplistic example, a $25,000 bill at a UC would be reduced to $20,000 with $5,000 of financial aid, but a private liberal arts college with a sticker price of $50,000 would cost $15,000 if the financial aid package totaled $35,000, making it cheaper than the UC. Of course, financial aid is more complicated than this, but private colleges with strong endowments often offer generous merit and need-based scholarships.  In the end, award offers must be weighed against each other carefully, taking into account whether the award is made up of loans (which must be paid back) or grants/scholarships (which do not get paid back).  The bottom line?  Research the possibility of financial aid before eliminating a college from your list just because it sounds too expensive.

Myth #3:  To get into a good college, I have to be good at everything.

Actually, colleges are looking for students who are have a passion for something, and who have shown dedication to one or two extracurricular activities or interests.  A smorgasbord of short-term involvement in sports, music, clubs, and community service projects without commitment and leadership is not impressive.  Each year, colleges try to build a well-rounded freshman class by admitting a diverse group of students who each bring something interesting to the mix, not by choosing thousands of identically well-rounded students.

Myth #4:  An A in an easy class will look better on my record than a B in an Honors or Advanced Placement course.

The first thing college admission officers look at is the strength of an applicant’s high school transcript.  Students are evaluated within the context of their own high schools, because the curriculum can differ dramatically from one school to another.  The colleges are sent profiles of each high school, so they know when students have taken the most rigorous possible curriculum.  Grade point averages are important, too, but colleges are not wowed by a student who has obviously avoided taking challenging classes in order to guarantee straight As.

Myth #5:  If I have a 4.0 GPA and perfect SAT scores, I will definitely be accepted by the best colleges.

There is more than one falsehood in this statement. First, college admissions is an unpredictable business and there are no guarantees, even for top students.  College admission decisions may seem inexplicable to you, and it is hard not to take the rejection personally, but each year colleges have to turn away many qualified students in their quest to form a balanced freshman class. Secondly, there is no such thing as “the best colleges,” only the colleges that are best for you.  The goal of every college applicant should be to find a school that best fits his or her needs, regardless of the college’s perceived prestige or famous name.  It also helps to realize that there is more than one college that is a good match for each student.

A college’s selectivity should not be considered as the ultimate arbiter of its worth. By having an open mind and a willingness to consider colleges that are not household names, today’s high school students and their parents can sail smoothly through the turbulent waters of college admission.