The stress of college admissions makes a lot of students and parents focus on the wrong things, things that don't matter nearly as much to colleges as we're often left to believe. Here are five examples.
Most people who think they have an influential connection later find out just how little influence those connections really had. In the 11 years since starting Collegewise, I've known only two kids (out of several thousand) who were admitted because of connections. Both had parents who donated several million dollars to particular schools that paid for a new building on campus. So while I don't deny that there are cases where connections can have huge influence, the truth is that those are extraordinary, and rare, instances.
2. Standardized test scores.
Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are not nearly as important as the college admissions frenzy makes them out to be. There are very few legitimately intellectual, hard working kids who are shut out of colleges because of low test scores alone. The tests play a role at lots of schools, and some kind of focused test preparation can be useful. But if you ultimately spend a lot more time studying for the SAT than you do reading, studying for trig or playing soccer, you're focusing on something that just doesn't matter as much as the things you're ignoring to focus on it.
3. Your GPA.
Your grades are a lot more important than your GPA is. What's the difference? Most colleges don't just take the GPA that's calculated on your transcript at face value. They look at what classes where available at your high school, which ones you took, and recalculate your GPA while paying attention to the rigor of your courses. A student who passes up a hard class just because it doesn't come with a weighted grade is focusing more on his GPA than he is on the opportunity to take a great class. A student who takes an elective college course over the summer not because he's interested in it, but because he hopes it will increase his GPA, that kid is focusing on the wrong things. Your GPA is not an endangered species that needs to be protected. Focus more on what you're learning and how hard you're working.
4. Expensive summer programs.
You will not impress Harvard by paying thousands of dollars to attend their summer school. Programs like that are "pay to play" and often measure a student's financial resources more than they do his interest in learning. The same can be said for expensive travel programs where you dig ditches in Costa Rica or swim with dolphins off the coast of Fiji (don't laugh–I've met kids who've done it). Get a job at the supermarket. Take a cooking class. Volunteer or intern at the community newspaper or coach a little league baseball team. No need to shell out all that money to learn or to make an impact.
5. Strategy, packaging yourself, and anything involving a "hook."
Getting into college isn't about strategy; it's about authenticity. Intellectual students want to take summer classes. Students with a sense of service want to volunteer at the soup kitchen. Leaders want to run for club office. If you're doing those things as a strategy for getting into what you think is a good college, you'd be far better served working hard doing something you really enjoy. They are far too many great colleges out there for you to spend your high school years trying to mold yourself into what you think a few selective colleges want.