There are many great books and blogs out there to help you understand the college application process. Even so, many myths about college admissions remain intact. Sometimes, they are even perpetuated by admissions officers at top colleges. Below is a list of five common misconceptions. Keeping them in mind will give you a competitive edge on your college apps.
Myth 1: colleges want well-rounded students
Any college counselor worth his or her salt will tell you the same thing: colleges want a well-rounded class, not well-rounded students. They want a freshman class in which every individual brings something truly exceptional to the table, rather than a myriad of partially-developed skills.
Think about it this way: you may be the most dedicated and ambitious kid in your high school. You may devote a hundred hours a week to your extracurriculars, and go above and beyond in all your AP and honors classes. The fact remains that it is exceedingly difficult to be a renaissance (wo)man at age seventeen. Better to use the limited time you have in high school cultivating one or two truly impressive talents.
Ivy League admissions officers love applicants who stand out in one area, especially if it is uncommon. (These students are sometimes called “pointy”—as opposed to “well-rounded.”) They will tell you stories about the kid who took a gap year and joined a circus in Russia, or the refugee who taught herself English and founded her own business in high school in the U.S. I have a good friend who, after a mediocre high school career, traveled to Paris with almost no money in his pocket, got a job at a fancy French bistro, and became the restaurant’s manager by age 19. He got into Columbia.
Stories like this can be intimidating, but knowing that colleges aren’t looking for well-rounded students should also be reassuring: you don’t need to participate in ten different schools clubs; you don’t need to get a part time job, do community service, and found your own non-profit. A long list of activities won’t help if you’re only spending a couple hours a week on each, and if you don’t hold leadership positions in your clubs and on your teams. Choose a couple activities, commit to them over at least three years, and be a leader.
Myth 2: certain academic interests and extracurriculars will improve your chance of admission
It’s not a question of what you’re passionate about; it’s a question of what you do with your passion.
Since you know that colleges don’t want well-rounded students, it’s time to think long and hard about what makes you tick. All you need are a couple activities you really feel strongly about. Explore some potential interests as early on as possible. By your sophomore year, you should have a pretty good idea of the different academic and extracurricular areas you really want to commit to.
Take your passions as far as you can, whether you’re into sports, literature, computer games, theatre, entrepreneurship or community service. Become a leader. Compete. Apply for awards. If you have a job (yes, working ten to twenty hours a week is every bit as impressive as community service!), seek out as much responsibility as possible—maybe even use the skills you’ve learned to start your own company (H&C can help you do this!).
Engaging in activities you’re not in love with is not going to help you gain admission to the top colleges. Their admissions officers are all looking for the same thing: passion, and a love of learning. Play to your strengths, do what you love, and be the best (one or two things) you can be.
Myth 3: having rich and illustrious parents gives you a leg up
If you have parents with impressive, high-paying jobs, you have most likely had access to all kinds of advantages: a relatively stress-free environment to grow up in, access to good education and private tutoring, and so on. However, when it comes to applying to college, admissions officers will not be impressed that your mother is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or that your father is a tenured professor at MIT.
It is unlikely that the folks reading your application are rich. They probably didn’t go to Ivy League universities themselves. When they see applicants who grew up wealthy with highly educated parents, their expectations (rightly) go way up. It is difficult to make excuses for a student who has had all kinds of advantages and privileges.
Keep this in mind when you are filling out information about your parents on the Common App. Do not lie about your parents’ occupations, but don’t go out of your way to tout their accomplishments. I have a friend whose father founded a candle company. He made the mistake of simply saying on the Common App that his dad was a CEO. This was true (and my friend is very proud of his father, who never went to college and still managed to become very successful). But putting something like “candle maker” or “artisan” would also have been true, and would have given less of an impression of privilege.
The one exception to this rule is for celebrities, and students with truly exceptional parents. You can be sure that having the President of the United States as a father helped Malia Obama get into Harvard—do you remember how much positive press this generated for the university? I’m not sure how often James Franco ever went to class, but Yale was very happy to claim him as a Ph.D. student here. It got people talking about Yale.
Myth 4: being a legacy will get you into “X” college
This is the one item on this list that is not exactly a myth. At many top colleges, legacies are accepted at twice or more the rate of regular applicants. This does not mean, however, that the competition isn’t fierce. Moreover, there’s a widespread misconception regarding legacies that should be cleared up.
In almost every instance, you are a legacy if and only if one or both of your parents attended the college you are applying to. The fact that your sister or your uncle was a student at Dartmouth will not earn you a prestigious legacy tag on your application folder. There is no point in discussing the fact that your grandfather, and his father, and his father before him all attended Cornell if neither of your parents went there. It might even make you look a little snobbish to the admissions folks in Ithaca. In most cases, top colleges don’t care if your parents attended their graduate or professional schools (one notable exception is The Wharton School: when Barron Trump applies to college, he will be considered a legacy at the University of Pennsylvania because his father went to Wharton after college). Make sure you’re clear on legacy policy before you bother asking for special consideration from the schools you’re applying to.
This is a good place to note also that you will not be considered a “development” case (i.e., a VIP applicant whose family promises to donate buckets of money to the school he or she attends) unless your family plans on donating something like a new library or student center to the college you choose. The fact that your family donates a couple thousand dollars annually to a university will not give you VIP status; nor will it motivate a university to send you an acceptance letter.
Myth 5: the alumni interview is an important part of the application process
And speaking of alumni, let’s talk about your interview. Very few top colleges still offer on-campus interviews with admissions officers. More likely, you will have the chance to interview with an alumnus/a of the college. I used to conduct alumni interviews myself, and I can tell you that the feedback my alma mater received from me was a very minor piece of the puzzle for any given applicant. Some colleges are no longer even offering interviews.
Go ahead and sign up for an interview—even two if that’s an option. It can help you show off your charisma and allow you to talk about your passions in person. But there’s one main thing to keep in mind. There is a very strong chance that your interviewer is a dedicated alum of the school you’re applying to (who else would willingly volunteer his or her time for free?). As such, he or she may be very interested to see how much you know about his or her alma mater, and how enthusiastic you are to attend.
Colleges do not make admissions decisions based on your knowledge about their campuses and your love for their a cappella group. But they know that these things may matter a lot to their alumni/ae, so they take comments from alums with a grain of salt. Don’t get thrown off if your interviewer quizzes you on college architecture, or the faculty of the physics department. Laugh it off, explain that you’ve been too busy with academics and extracurriculars to learn all the professors' names by heart, and focus on your own passions and accomplishments.
One free tip for the interview
Never underestimate the power of small talk when it comes to making first impressions. I do not mean you should discuss the weather, or your plans for the weekend. I do mean that it is very helpful, when speaking with adults, to have an idea of what is going on in the world. It is a bad idea simply to parrot political opinions you may have heard on the radio on your way to your interview. But if you have some real, insightful ideas about the viability of a single-payer healthcare system, President Trump’s supreme court nominations, or even how the World Cup played out, it is absolutely appropriate to voice your ideas if and when your interviewer brings up current events, or if they relate to your activities. Your interviewer will be impressed that you are aware that there is a world outside your hometown and high school, even if he or she does not necessarily share all your opinions. Who knows, the two of you may even find common ground. I always recommend that high school students subscribe to some good podcasts (NPR’s “Up First” and “The Daily” from The New York Times are quick and easy ways to keep up-to-speed with the news).