In my experience, there’s often a fog of uncertainty surrounding the college admissions process, primarily due to the myriad myths and misconceptions. What we believe we know and what the actual facts are can be worlds apart, leading to unintended outcomes.
This article, based on my knowledge and research, aims to demystify four prevalent myths related to the college admissions process: the weightage of college rankings, the dilemma between choosing easy and tough courses, the misconception that it’s too late for seniors to improve their admission chances, and the undervaluation of the college essay.
My aim is to clarify these issues and ensure you approach this process with a better understanding.
What is the Admission Process for College?
Before diving into the myths surrounding the college admission process, it is crucial to have a fundamental understanding of what this process entails.
The college admissions process typically begins during a student’s high school years, often in the junior year, when students start considering which colleges they might want to attend.
This initial phase involves researching colleges to understand their academic programs, campus culture, admission criteria, and financial aid opportunities.
The actual application process usually begins during the first semester of senior year. While exact requirements can vary from college to college, there are several standard elements present in most applications:
1️⃣ The Application Form
This is typically an online form where students provide basic information about themselves, their educational background, and their extracurricular activities.
2️⃣ High School Transcript
The transcript, sent by the high school, shows the student’s grades and course load from their freshman year through their junior year and sometimes the first semester of their senior year.
3️⃣ Standardized Test Scores
Colleges often require scores from standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. Some colleges, however, have test-optional or test-blind policies, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
4️⃣ Letters of Recommendation
Colleges usually ask for letters of recommendation from a student’s teachers, counselors, or other adults who can speak to the student’s abilities and character. These letters provide insight into the student’s performance and behavior beyond what grades and test scores can reveal.
5️⃣ College Essays
Also known as personal statements, college essays allow students to share their story, personality, goals, or perspectives. Some colleges provide prompts, while others allow students to choose their own topic.
6️⃣ Extracurricular Activities
Colleges are interested in what students do outside the classroom. This could include sports, clubs, part-time jobs, volunteering, or personal projects.
Once all these elements are submitted by the application deadline, admissions officers review the applications. They consider each part of the application, looking for evidence of academic potential, personal character, and how well the student might fit at their institution.
After review, the college will send an acceptance, rejection, or waitlist decision to the student.
Now that we have a fundamental understanding of the college admissions process let’s dive into some common myths that often misguide students during this crucial phase.
Myth 1: College Rankings Don’t Matter.
University presidents have to have something to complain about. Their jobs are pretty plush—six figures plus country club memberships, cars, and plenty of prestige. Oh sure, they have to do a lot of fundraising, and if they run public institutions, beg at state capitols. They also have to weigh competing interests among departments and faculties.
But at the heart of it, they’ve got a great gig. So why are they complaining about rankings? Because in academia, putting a number on “quality” is unseemly. For many university presidents, it’s not the number itself but the fact that “my number is lower than his number.” Not all university presidents are equal.
Others complain about rankings, too. Guidance counselors, parents, students, sociologists… they all seem to have a beef with the US News & World Report’s annual score sheet.
Why? Maybe it’s because they don’t like to deal with the facts of life—or, to put it more directly, they don’t like the idea that high school kids must deal with the realities of life so early.
Of course, protecting kids isn’t a terrible thing. But hiding from reality is no solution. Rejecting the notion that rankings are important is idealistic but not realistic. Kids are going to face a world where people care about “where you went to school.” Corporations care about where their new marketing hires go to school.
The highest echelons of the government care where their new civil servants went to school. Large charities like the United Way or Red Cross care where their new development officers went to school. And so on. So we can reject rankings as unfair and silly, or we can remember that whether we like it or not, people in “the real world” care about them.
This doesn’t mean that if a junior doesn’t get into the #1 ranked school, he’s a washout. What it does mean is that in considering all of the important factors that go into the college application process, the schools’ relative rankings should be a part of the discussion.
It is a fact of life that even if the education a student receives at Harvard is no better than that received by a student at another school, there will likely be many more options for the Harvard graduate.
They may not be the end-all in choosing a college, but there’s no doubt that in today’s world, rankings matter.
Myth #2: It’s better to take easy classes for A’s than to take a risk on the hard ones.
Obviously, the best thing to do is to take hard classes and get A’s. But given that you don’t know what grade you’ll get before you start a class, this can be a tough issue.
While there are some good schools out there that only look at grade point averages and test scores (plus a few other objective factors), most competitive colleges will look at the rigor of your high school curriculum.
Admissions officers will discount your GPA if you haven’t challenged yourself enough. If you are in a high school with a significant number of AP courses, you should have taken at least a few of them. If you are at a high school with limited offerings, admissions officers will look to see how you challenged yourself through community college courses or special projects.
Let’s look at the way Dartmouth College approaches its admissions criteria to understand how your course rigor and grades affect your chances of admittance.
According to Michele Hernandez, a former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth, in her book A is for Admission, Dartmouth uses two sets of rankings to analyze candidates for admission. They use an academic ranking based on the Ivy League AI (admissions index) and an extracurricular/personal ranking.
The AI weights the SAT, the SAT IIs, and a class rank or GPA score equally. What this means for applicants is that their grades matter, though not quite as much as their collective test scores. But it is not just their grades.
In computing this AI, schools look first at class rank. This is where you need to understand your school’s system. If your school weights grades, especially in AP classes, your class rank will probably suffer if you are not taking these difficult classes. If your class rank suffers, so will your AI (and thus the basic academic score used by admissions officers).
If your school does not weight grades, the decision is a tougher one, as your A’s in tough classes will count no more than those in the easy ones.
The AI is not the final story, however. What they want to know is, did you take tough classes? Hernandez says:
“If academics are two-thirds of the admissions decision, the high school transcript probably accounts for roughly 60% of the academic determination, even though, as we have seen, the AI formula does not accurately reflect this emphasis. On the whole officers spend more time on [the transcript] than on just about anything else.”
What are they looking for? Intellectual curiosity and a will to challenge yourself in your schoolwork. They want kids who take advantage of all the academic opportunities offered to them—if they don’t do that in high school, why would they need the extra opportunities offered at a highly selective university?
Myth #3: I’m a senior; it’s too late now to affect my chances for admission.
There are two ways you can still affect your chances for admission. First, you can control, to some extent, how your record is portrayed on an application. Second, you can craft the parts of the application that have not yet been written—essays, short answers, and to some extent, letters of recommendation.
By the time you are a senior, certain pieces of the application puzzle are set in stone. Your academic record is written—your GPA, class rank, the rigor of your curriculum, and maybe even your test scores are all established for the purposes of college admissions.
Oh sure, your grades may change some over the course of the year, but probably not enough to affect your admissibility. The academic record can’t really be manipulated through strategic marketing, though you may be able to explain certain suspect grades or trends. Your extracurricular record also seems to be a static entity—you certainly can’t go back and join a different club or run for an office.
You can, however, choose which activities to emphasize and which honors to put out in front. And don’t forget that you can talk about the activities you are pursuing this year, even if you falter at the end and don’t accomplish everything you set out to do.
By contrast, your essays and short answers have never been written. Your experiences may limit the material about which you can write, but if you really sit down and think about it, your experiences are much richer than you first think.
Just like in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, you would be surprised by the difference in your community or world if you had never been born. Think about the impact you have had on your family, friends, school, and community. Think about the experiences you’ve had where you’ve truly grown as a person.
Also, consider that colleges are looking for individuals with potential, so it is perfectly appropriate to talk about your hopes and dreams–your stories that have yet to be written.
Your teachers’ impressions of you may seem similarly rigid, but you still have the opportunity to select and prepare your recommenders. The important thing is to find recommenders who know you pretty well and will give you a good recommendation.
It would be best to do what you can to ensure the recommendation process goes as smoothly as possible. Give your teachers a resume and even offer to put together a write-up about your goals and ambitions.
Moreover, it would help if you reminded them about your accomplishments in their class or the activity they sponsored. Some teachers will allow you to see your recommendation before they send it. You should absolutely take them up on this offer and, depending on the situation, suggest changes.
Recommenders need to understand that they are particularly important because college admissions officials believe them to be relatively honest. They have to be careful what they say and that they don’t undercut their students’ chances without meaning to.
Remember that they are supposed to talk about academic achievement and intellectual curiosity. They should not gloss over that with, “Of course, his academics are without question, but you need to know how well he plays basketball…” They should also not talk about their students in the context of being a “plugger” and a “hard worker.”
Hard work is not a bad thing, but admissions officials may see the student as all work and no play (and that they needed to do a lot of hard work in order to get their grades).
Myth #4: No one will read my essay anyway, or if they do, it will just be the 1st paragraph.
If you consider the typical college application, it is filled with facts: SAT score, GPA, social security number, student organizations & their offices, honors, name, race, social security number, mother’s maiden name… you get the idea.
Few opportunities exist for admissions officers to get a real feel for who you really are. The rest of the application is in black and white. The essays add color.
As Bill Paul puts it in his Getting In: Inside the College Admissions Process:
“. . . at Princeton as at other elite universities, an applicant’s essay often winds up being the focal point of his folder because it demonstrates several important things at once: the quality of the student’s thinking, the skill with which he communicates, and the person behind the grades and test scores.”
Columbia admissions officer told us that “it is the well-written, interesting essays that get the applicant discussed most in committee.”
This is the reason why the range of SAT scores at even the most highly selective institutions ranges broadly. At Princeton, the 25th to 75th percentile range of scores was 1380-1560 in 2002. You’d find a similar range in undergraduate GPA.
Why is a student with a 1350 sometimes getting in when a candidate with a perfect 1600 is not? One answer is that the 1350 student is setting himself apart with his essays. Admissions officers are not spending 12, 13 hours a day during the season reading test scores—they are reading essays. This fact should both scare you and encourage you. You are not just a set of numbers for them. Now you’ve got to meet the challenge.
While admissions officers are, in fact, reading your essays, they are not the best audience in the world. They are spending hours and hours reading “the same old stuff.” Clichés, hackneyed phrases, and even poor grammar abound in these typically immature writing samples.
For every essay that an admissions officer really enjoys, there are hundreds that he’d like to crumple up and throw into the fire. Admissions officers do not stop at the first paragraph, but their enthusiasm might.
Your challenge is to be interesting. You don’t have to be unique, nor do you have to write about a topic that no one else has covered. You do have to let your personality seep through and write about common topics in a unique way (maybe even using some college lingo, but not too much). This is your chance to “meet” the admissions officer.
So don’t look at the essay as a waste of time. Look at it as an opportunity to put yourself over the top.
My objective in presenting this information is to bring clarity to a process that is often shrouded in misinformation and unnecessary anxiety. By dispelling these four misconceptions—about college rankings, class selection, late improvements, and the importance of essays—I hope to alleviate some of the stress associated with college applications.
As far as I know, every aspect of your application has significance, it’s never too late to make enhancements, and it all boils down to identifying an institution that best aligns with your academic goals.
It’s important to remember, in my opinion, that this process is a chance for introspection, an opportunity to represent your accomplishments and aspirations effectively to your prospective colleges.
If you ever need college admission consulting assistance, feel free to check our comprehensive reviews about the best college admission consultants that are currently available on the market.
Have a great one!