Well-meaning parents all want to help their kids succeed in the college application process. But they often don’t realize how much the application process has changed since they themselves applied. Former admissions officers Anna Ivey and Alison Cooper Chisolm debunk the six most enduring myths among parents about today’s college admissions landscape.
“Parents can and do play an important role in helping their children stay focused and motivated in the run-up to application season, especially during crunch time,” says Chisolm, coauthor with Ivey of How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice That Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit. “But in fact, they sometimes steer their kids in the wrong direction because they rely on outdated wisdom about what it takes to get in.”
“No question, in some ways the college application process was easier back when today’s parents were in high school,” adds Ivey. “It’s important to realize what has changed; otherwise it’s too easy to default into what worked best for you back then. What got you in then might not get them in now.”
If you’re ready to step out of the time machine, read on to learn what Chisolm and Ivey consider the top six myths about college admissions:
#1. The Myth: More is better. In the past, college applicants were instructed to show how “well-rounded” they were by filling in every single line on the Activities list. Nothing—not even playing the dulcimer once at a cultural festival—was too insignificant to report. The more interests, achievements, and activities an applicant could share, the thinking went, the more impressive he would be (e.g., “Can you believe that this student found time to lead four school clubs, play three different sports, march in the band, tutor children, write poetry, participate in Boy Scouts, and get good grades?”).
The New Reality: Deep passion and big impact matter a lot more. “There is no reward at all just for signing up, showing up, or meeting the minimum requirements,” confirms Ivey. “Admissions officers would rather see real commitment to a smaller number of activities, because they can realistically assume that applicants will bring those interests, skills, and talents with them to campus. Not so with the one-time-only dulcimer performance!”
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#2. The Myth: It’s best to leave a (long) paper trail. Sending colleges newspaper clippings, your history paper, science project descriptions, and as much unsolicited documentation as possible used to be a big trend. Parents and students who believe this myth operate on the assumption that anything to make their file thicker will help. They envision admissions officers raptly poring over each and every sheet of paper, slowly falling in love as they learn more and more about the applicant.
The New Reality: Concise is nice. “Less is more, clippings are out, and YouTube videos are sometimes in (but proceed with caution),” says Chisolm. “A great application is neither a scrapbook nor a PR media kit. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that admissions officers don’t want to get a clear, accurate picture of each student. They do; that’s partially why there are so many quirky long- and short-answer questions on applications. But the reality is, with thousands of applications to evaluate, there simply isn’t time to read ten newspaper articles about how you won the science fair. And chances are, your application will reflect the fact that you’re a chemistry fiend, anyway.”
#3. The Myth: Geography determines which standardized test you should take. In days gone by there was some truth to the belief that East Coast colleges prefer the SAT to the ACT, while Midwestern and Southern colleges prefer the ACT to the SAT.
The New Reality: Testing knows no borders (and sometimes isn’t required). “These days, top colleges accept either test, so focus on the one that plays to your strengths,” recommends Ivey. “If you’re a repeat test taker, familiarize yourself with each of your colleges’ mix-and-match opportunities like Score Choice and Super Scoring. Also, be aware that at some schools, reporting any test scores at all is optional—and that trend is growing.”
#4. The Myth: Early Decision helps only the cream of the crop. Early Decision was once thought of as a good strategy only for the super-duper top of the applicant pool. It won’t make a difference for anyone else, applicants believed, so why worry about completing an application months before the regular decision deadline?
The New Reality: Applying early can give you a boost. “Early Decision (especially when it’s binding for admitted students) can make the difference, and it’s worth considering as long as you’re at least competitive for that college,” Chisolm says. “Colleges want to ‘lock in’ qualified students who are interested in attending, because they know they’ll lose many similar Regular Decision applicants to other schools. But if you’re not in the running to begin with, applying early won’t make a difference.”
#5. The Myth: High-profile endorsements help. In general, people believe that name-dropping can’t hurt. It’s a common belief that recommendations from college alumni, university VIPs, the president, or the pope will only help your application.
The New Reality: Recommendations from famous people add next to no value. “However, admissions officers might get a good chuckle from these ‘high-profile’ letters,” Ivey shares. “The fact is that top schools have thousands of living alumni out there, so coughing one up is no distinction. What can help is called a ‘flag on the file’—when someone with a truly important connection to the school makes a behind-the-scenes call on your behalf. That’s just a small plus, though, not a huge one.”
#6. The Myth: Community service needs to be “exotic.” Unfortunately many parents lie awake at night worrying that they’ll need to wipe out their retirement savings in order to send their kids on glitzy but charitable-looking trips to exotic places every summer. Otherwise, they believe, their child’s community service won’t stand out from that of thousands of other applicants.
The New Reality: Service is service, wherever it happens. “The first ten people who tried the ‘exotic locale’ strategy may have made an impression just for the sheer novelty, but it doesn’t distinguish anyone today and hasn’t impressed admissions officers in a long, long time,” promises Ivey. “There are plenty of opportunities to do something meaningful closer to home and without spending a king’s ransom. And admissions officers realize that volunteering every week at a nursing home for the past four years demonstrates much more commitment and compassion than a parent-funded weeklong mission trip to South America, for example.”
BONUS Myth (which hasn’t been true since the Eisenhower era): Applications should read as though they were written by adults. In the more distant past, a great college application essay emulated the style of sober-minded grown-ups or middle-aged managers. All evidence of adolescent quirkiness, it was believed, must be squelched.
The New Reality: Essays should sound like a teenager both in voice and in content. “Rewriting your child’s essay to talk about the ‘sweat equity’ that went into founding the Model UN Club won’t fool anyone, and the end result will be far less interesting to admissions officers than what your child would have written when left to her own devices,” Chisolm comments. “Admissions officers know that teenagers, not adults, are applying. They don’t expect perfection or even consummate maturity. What they do expect is to get an accurate picture of who the applicant is and what she likes, believes, hopes, and does from reading her application.”