12 College Admissions Myths — Debunked
The admissions process is tricky — there’s no doubt about that. And with so much hype surrounding this all-important time, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not.
We’ve rounded up 12 myths about the college admissions process. Find out why they’re false and what you should do instead.
12 Common Misconceptions About College Admissions
1. College planning starts junior year.
Too many students and families wait until junior year to start planning for college. But really, you should start thinking about college admissions as early as your freshman year. While you won’t actually be applying until your senior year, your freshman year is the time for you to reflect on the interests you’d like to pursue through your extracurricular activities, coursework, and more.
You don’t have to have everything figured out freshman year, of course. Think of it as a time to start exploring your interests and skills in a broader sense before honing in on potential areas of focus and career paths. That way, you’ll begin to put together a cohesive narrative and set yourself up for success when it comes time to apply.
2. You need to take a certain number of AP/IB classes.
There’s no magic number when it comes to how many AP or IB classes you should take. What matters most to colleges is that you take the most rigorous curriculum available to you at your high school while maintaining a strong performance. If your high school doesn’t offer any AP or IB courses, adcoms won’t hold that against you; instead, they’ll want to see that you pursued the most challenging courses you could, comparing that to other students at your high school.
Moreover, you should take courses that complement your interests and the rest of your profile. For example, if you’re a math whiz who intends to study statistics in college, adcoms will want to see that you took courses like AP Statistics and AP Calculus BC. They won’t penalize you for not taking AP U.S. History — you’re playing to your strengths.
3. Getting a couple of bad grades will ruin your chances.
It’s understandably discouraging to receive a poor grade. However, a C on your transcript doesn’t automatically mean you won’t be able to get into a top college. For instance, if you received a C during your freshman year, while adjusting to a new course load and curriculum, the C will carry far less weight than if you had received it during your junior year. What’s most important is demonstrating improvement in those areas where you might have previously struggled. Establishing that upward academic trend will show that you’re capable of learning, adjusting, and improving.
Another instance in which a poor grade probably won’t affect your chances of admission too much is if you received the grade in a nonacademic course like art or PE. Adcoms are unlikely to even factor this type of grade into your admissions decision, unless the course is relevant to your prospective degree.
This isn’t to say that a bad grade doesn’t matter, but it may not be the end of the world. Aim to finish high school strong and don’t be afraid to address the grade directly in your application, especially if it was due to extenuating circumstances.
4. Volunteering is essential and super impressive on applications.
Of course, colleges want to see you giving back to your community. But many high schools require community service anyways, so it’s not all that impressive to adcoms. Beyond that, volunteering usually doesn’t involve extra responsibilities or leadership skills, and is often purely participation-based.
Instead, think of your activities in terms of the four tiers of extracurricular activities. Briefly, the tiers are as follows:
- Tier 1: Activities that demonstrate rare and exceptional achievement or leadership, like a national award.
- Tier 2: Activities that demonstrate a high level of achievement but are somewhat more common than Tier 1 activities. An example would be a state-level award or being the student body president.
- Tier 3: Activities that demonstrate participation in pursuits outside the classroom, including minor leadership positions and school distinctions.
- Tier 4: Common activities with no leadership responsibilities, like working a job, or being a member of a club.
General volunteering is usually a Tier 4 activity, but if you’ve had notable achievements or leadership roles, especially for an organization that operates nationally or globally, then it could be a higher-tier activity. You should aim for a handful of Tier 1 and 2 activities, along with a few more Tier 3 and 4 activities.
This doesn’t mean that you should stop volunteering necessarily—we just want to clarify that volunteering in itself isn’t an impressive extracurricular, even if you rack up tons of hours. Volunteer hours can still be valuable to your application, as they demonstrate where your passions lie. And beyond that, it’s a good thing to give back to your community. If volunteering is super meaningful to you, think about ways you can increase your responsibilities, maybe even taking on a leadership role.
5. Music and sports are impressive extracurriculars.
Again, these are fairly common activities. If you’re in your high school wind ensemble or on the soccer team, even if you hold a leadership position, you’re not going to stand out based on the merits of that position alone. Many other applicants have similar activities on their resumes, too.
If you’re highly talented in one of these areas — meaning that you’re a state-level athlete or musician — that’s a different story; in fact, you may well be recruited or accepted because of it. But if you’re not, you might want to focus on more unique extracurriculars with “higher returns.”
What do we mean? Sports and music require an immense amount of time and effort, but they’re only a Tier 3 or 4 activity for most students. Of course, if you absolutely love sports or music, and don’t want to give it up, by all means continue. We’re not trying to offend anyone here!
That said, don’t pursue any activities that you’re not passionate about just because you think it will look good on your applications. The truth is that you could probably be spending your time much more wisely.
6. Family responsibilities aren’t extracurriculars.
Some students have extensive family responsibilities, such as watching younger siblings while their parents are working, or running the family grocery store. These can certainly qualify as extracurricular activities, and you should include them on your college applications.
In fact, if these activities have prevented you from pursuing more formal extracurriculars or impacted your schoolwork, you should elaborate further in the Additional Information section of your application.
7. Paid summer programs boost your application.
Selective summer programs can be highly impressive. Examples include:
- Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP)
- Research Science Institute (RSI)
- Boys/Girls State
- Research in Science & Engineering (RISE)
- Clark Scholar Program
However, paid programs that are not highly selective won’t do much to impress colleges. This includes many summer programs at top-tier schools, like Brown or Stanford. Families mistakenly assume that going to a summer program there will boost your chances, when it will in fact not.
Make sure the program has rigorous admission criteria to confirm that it will help your application. In general, free programs are better than paid ones.
Of course, if there’s a summer program that interests you as an enrichment activity, by all means, pursue it. But don’t expect it to substantially increase your chances of admission.
8. You need to take both the SAT and ACT.
Colleges will accept either SAT or ACT scores. You don’t need to take both, and taking both is actually a poor use of your time; you could better spend that time on your extracurriculars or schoolwork.
But how do you decide between the SAT vs. the ACT? Consider the following:
- The ACT has a science section, whereas the SAT does not. If you excel in the sciences, the ACT may be the better choice.
- One section of the Math section on the SAT doesn’t allow calculator usage, so if you think you’ll need it, go with the ACT.
- Need time to go over the questions and your responses? The ACT and SAT take about the same time to complete, but the ACT has more questions. That means you’ll have less time to respond to each one — which could put you at a disadvantage.
- The essay portion of the SAT evaluates reading comprehension, whereas the ACT essay assesses critical thinking and analysis to an extent.
Of course, if you’re not sure which test would better play to your strengths and you’re willing (and able) to take both, there’s no harm in that; you can submit the better scores. But you certainly don’t have to do that.
9. External scholarships are easy to win.
While there are many scholarships offered by outside organizations, generally speaking they’re fairly difficult to win. Most require that you meet certain academic thresholds and submit additional materials, such as letters of recommendation or personal essays. The ones that don’t have strict requirements tend to be extremely competitive since they attract so many applicants.
If your college of choice offers merit-based scholarships, your odds are actually better there — although it’s important to keep in mind that many highly selective colleges only offer need-based awards. To maximize your chances of getting a big merit scholarship, apply to lower-ranked colleges where your profile is especially strong. These less-selective schools may try to entice you with a large merit award, maybe even a full-ride!
10. Private schools are unaffordable.
The stated price tag for many private colleges may seem astronomically high, leaving many students and families to believe that they can’t possibly afford to attend. In reality, though, a vast majority of college students receive financial aid, usually through a combination of grants, loans, and work-study aid.
In fact, many top-tier schools will meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated need. These schools include Amherst, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, West Point, and many others. After financial aid, it’s actually possible that these private colleges could be cheaper than your state school!
Beyond that, some schools are even no-loan, meaning that they won’t include loans in your financial aid package. In these cases, you won’t even have to worry about paying anything back after graduation.
11. You can copy and paste your college essays for different schools.
While your Common App essay can certainly be submitted to every college that accepts it, supplemental essays are almost always school-specific.
This is especially true in the case of a “Why This College?” essay. This prompt asks you to explain why you want to attend that particular school. If you’re able to lift the majority of your essay and use it to respond to a similar prompt from another college, then your essay really isn’t specific enough.
That said, you can use the same or modified portions for multiple essays. However, you’ll need to be careful to ensure that you’re fully responding to each unique prompt.
12. Test-optional means test-blind.
Even before the COVID pandemic, some colleges did away with their standardized testing requirements, meaning students could choose whether or not to submit scores from the SAT or ACT. During the pandemic, a majority of institutions followed suit and became test-optional as many test dates were canceled and fewer students had the ability to take the exams.
But test-optional is not the same as test-blind. Schools that are test-optional still consider scores when students submit them, while test-blind schools won’t look at scores at all.
At test-optional schools, those who choose not to submit scores may be at a disadvantage compared to those who do. If two students with similar profiles are under review, and one submits solid scores while the other doesn’t, the student who submits scores is more likely to be admitted.
That said, if you’re an under-represented minority, first-generation student, or lower-income student, you’re better-positioned to benefit from test-optional policies, as there are generally more testing barriers for these groups.
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