Busting College Admissions Myths

Few things strike more fear into the hearts of final year students and their parents than college admissions.  Unfortunately, more often than not, these fears are derived from a lack of knowledge or a misunderstanding of the facts, leading to unnecessary stress and poor decision-making. As college admissions counselors we strongly urge students and their parents to operate on facts and not stories passed down from others. Finding the right college for a student is a highly individual process best started based on facts. Let this article serve as your first foray into finding out what college admissions are really all about…

Myth #1: I only need US News and World Report to determine the best college for my student

US News and World Report rank colleges based on a wide range of generally relevant quantitative data such as freshman retention rate, graduation rates, spending per student, selectivity of admissions and alumni giving rates. The rankings are also based on more subjective evaluations such as general reputation and excellence of academic offerings. While it can reasonably be used as a viable place to gain an introduction to the breadth of colleges and universities in the US, UK and elsewhere, I cannot help but point out that US News and World Report ranked Syracuse University as having the one of the best (top 5) programs in Special Education for years after the program had been discontinued.1 I use this example to highlight the fact that college counselors, college specific research and college visits are by far more valuable and reliable tools needed to gather up-to-date information needed to assess which colleges are actually the best for your student!  Moreover, only through personal research can the applicant discover the facts about colleges that are most important to them.

Many of these subtle factors cannot be measured in a report, yet they will greatly influence your child’s academic success and personal development during their time in college.

Myth #2: US News and World Report is a US government endorsed source for college rankings

US News & World Report is a privately run magazine that ranks colleges, universities and schools. The US government endorses neither the magazine, its ranking system, nor its published results.

Myth #3: If my college is not well known, it is not worth attending

There are hundreds of excellent colleges, both large and small, that are less known in international markets. Keep in mind though that postgraduate programs and often employers are very familiar with the virtues of students who hail from institutions unfamiliar to the masses. Experienced counselors know some of these lesser-known colleges offer an outstanding range of classes taught by professors dedicated to undergraduate instruction. Additionally these institutions general offer small classes, giving students amazing access to their professors, undergraduate research, tutoring centers and academic counseling. While larger, better known institutions may offer some of these benefits, keep in mind that they are usually reserved for graduate school students and not undergraduates.

Myth #4: Liberal Arts Colleges do not offer science classes

Colleges of Liberal Arts and Science (the proper name for these schools) offer a wide and deep variety of classes in the sciences, maths and engineering. In fact, science is an important part of a liberal arts education and every graduating student is required to take a number of maths and science courses in addition to courses in the social sciences, humanities and languages. As a result, graduates from liberal arts colleges are highly sought after in fields from teaching to finance and medicine. This is because they have a broad understanding of the world and can see connections and solutions that others with a less integrative education might miss. For you skeptics out there, check out the National Science Foundation (NSF)‘s data that lists the undergraduate universities and colleges where the US’s engineers and science PhD’s studied. Topping the list are Harvey Mudd College, Reed College, Carleton College, Grinnell College and Bryn Mawr…all Colleges of Liberal Arts and Science!

Myth #5: Recommendation letters from powerful or famous people will help me get in

A great recommendation letter comes from a person who can tell admissions counselors who you are, how you face challenges and what you are capable of. Asking someone powerful or famous could be helpful, but only if this person is actually able to offer insight as to who you really are. Your recommender should be able to write a convincing letter on your behalf, but they will only be able to do so if they feel confident in your ability to succeed in school. By offering to write a letter for you, your recommender is also risking their professional credibility if you do not live up to expectations. If there is someone who can offer accurate insight about you, whether it is your chemistry teacher or debate club advisor, they are much more appropriate to ask for a recommendation as they can best tell your college about what you have to offer.

Myth #6: It is better to take easy classes and get high grades than risk my GPA by taking a hard class

Colleges are looking for students to work hard and push themselves as far as they can.  You are much better off, in admissions terms, getting a B in a difficult class than getting an A in an easier one.

Myth #7: Attending a boarding school in the US or UK will guarantee me a spot in a top college

Attending boarding school does not guarantee a student admission into a ‘better’ or more selective college.  College admissions are dependent on the performance of the student in their school environment. Colleges will ask the same questions of all students regardless of the school they attend. How rigorous was your selected academic program? How well did you perform academically? Did you make the most out of the resources available to you? What are you passionate about and what did you do with your passions? If anything, boarding school students have an even higher hurdle to clear as they have generally had more access to a wider diversity of activities and colleges, therefore there can be higher expectations of them.

Myth #8: No one will know if I use someone else’s essay

Actually, college admissions officials are quite savvy. Most have read hundreds, if not thousands of essays and are quite adept at recognizing an inauthentic voice. Also, student essays are not read in isolation, but as part of the whole application, so if events, sentiments or writing style are inconsistent, the application is highly unlikely to make it to the admit pile. Finally, admissions offices are increasingly sophisticated. Many use computer programs to determine the originality of essays and answers. If they find any part of a student’s response to be plagiarized, the application will simply be discarded. The bottom line here is if a student does not have the wherewithal to submit his or her own work, he or she will likely be discovered and rejected. If he or she does get admitted, but is unable to perform at the expected level, he or she will soon enough suffer the academic consequences.

Misunderstandings about the college admissions process abound, especially in international schools where many students have infrequent exposure to the colleges they aspire to attend. This article is intended to dispel some of the myths we most commonly confront in our practice.  We hope that the facts will be a relief to you in some small way and leave you more knowledgeable and confident about the college admissions process.

1 Source: Professor of Graduate Studies Education Program, Syracuse University.

By Tess Robinson Founding Partner, TEAM Education Consulting.

Contributor: Kristin Blake, Associate College Advisor, TEAM Education Consulting.

Tess is a graduate of Harvard Business School where she earned an MBA and Stanford University where she earned an AB in International Relations. Tess speaks English, French, and Spanish and is conversant in Mandarin Chinese and brings 12 years of college advisory experience in addition to 3 years in finance and 8 years in marketing to benefit students and families with excellent counsel advice and career planning for both Undergraduate and Graduate applications. 2013 admits include Harvard, Columbia, UC Berkeley, Bryn Mawr College, Occidental, Harvard Business School, Columbia School of Business, Chicago Booth School of Business and NYU. Tess is a member of NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counselors) and OACAC (Overseas Association for College Admissions Counselors).

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Tess Robinson