January is the beginning of the college admission season for high school juniors and their parents. Energetic and well-informed high school counselors are assembling their notes for upcoming parents meetings. These sessions are usually valuable and informative. Yet, despite all the good data and advice, some false assumptions about college admissions stubbornly survive. You encounter them while dining with friends, surfing the Internet or eavesdropping on the sidelines at youth soccer games.
Here are five of the most resilient and harmful of these wrong ideas about finding the best college for you:
1. Colleges are impressed by a lot of extracurricular activities.
What a high school student does outside the classroom is important. Extracurriculars can make the difference when seeking admission to colleges that have three times as many straight-A student applicants as they have space. At one Ivy League college, I heard admissions officers describe applicants as, for instance, the violin-playing quarterback or the math-medalist poet. Only two activities were mentioned. They never mentioned more than two activities. They wanted depth, not breadth. If the student was a baker, they wanted to see him enter his blueberry pies in county fairs. If the student was a writer, they hoped for copies of her op-eds that ran in the local newspaper. To them, five or six activities was a waste of time and space on the application.
2. The more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes and tests, the better.
Selective colleges expect applicants to enroll in three to five AP, IB or similar college-level courses and take the final exams. If you like AP, taking 12 of them won’t hurt you but confers no advantage over a classmate who took just four and did well on the exams.
3. Every high school grade counts.
High grade-point averages are vital, but it is possible to get Bs in three or four courses and still have an average above 4.0. The extra weight given AP or IB courses makes the difference. Admissions officers often discount mediocre grades in the freshman year, if the student’s record improves after that. A single recommendation letter from a teacher saying an applicant was the best history student he had had in five years can make a C in physics meaningless.
4. A student has little chance to get into a top school without an SAT prep course.
I spent a lot of money on the course my daughter took her junior year. These courses teach important things and give students confidence walking into the exam. But we have data showing such courses did little good for students who listened in their high school classes, did their homework and took a few practice SAT exams from the book in their counselor’s office. My daughter raised her score 10 points after the course. That cost me $100 a point.
5. The harder a college is to get into, the more it will ensure a bright future.
It is difficult to persuade tribal primates like us that this isn’t true. We are genetically wired to respect pecking orders. If we see a college listed No. 1, we want to go there. When its admissions rate falls below 10 percent, we are even more excited. Research indicates that the most selective schools look good because they attract so many of the students with character traits, such as persistence and humor, that ensure success. Those students acquire those traits long before they get to college and do just as well in life if they attend a school nobody heard of.