Five fruitless college admissions tactics

After helping more than 10,000 students navigate the college admissions process, our counselors have an informed sense of what works and what doesn’t work when helping students get where they want to go. And we’ve noticed that some families spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on strategies that almost never work. Here are five of the most common.

1. Over-strategizing.
I define “over-strategizing” as spending too much time and energy looking for a way in than actually doing the work it takes to get in. Seeking the one major to apply under that will turn a dream college into a sure thing, relentlessly emailing admissions officers or faculty in the hopes that it will prove you’re interested, submitting lots of additional materials the college didn’t request with your application—all of these actions deflect your efforts away from the very things colleges actually care about. And those are almost always spelled out in the “Admissions” sections of colleges’ websites.

2. Angling to leverage connections.
This is a more specific version of #1, but is so rampant that it deserves its own mention. These families claim that they know someone who ostensibly “has a lot of pull” or is “on the board” (we’ve never seen this mythical board or just exactly who sits on it). But those purported connections often turn out to be an alumnus who is nowhere near influential enough to make a difference. For a connection to be an advantage usually requires that the school’s vital interests would be at stake were the student to be denied admission. If your parents just funded the new film school on campus or your dad just coached the football team to a national championship, your chances of getting in will probably increase substantially. But the fact that your parent’s coworker once went to school there and has offered to write you a letter of recommendation? We’ve never seen a connection like that make an admissions difference.

3. Focusing too much on other students.
The student you complain didn’t deserve to be let into the AP class you were shut out of? The catcher on the softball team you swear gets to start because her family knows the coach? The activity you don’t enjoy but joined because all the other high achievers seem to be doing it? Those are all examples of spending way too much time worrying about what other students are doing. You can’t control what they do, you can only control what you do. And one of my core tenets of college admissions planning is to relentlessly focus on the parts of the process you can control. I know that curved grades, class ranking, tryouts, and auditions all impose a metric that compares you to other students. But driving all your personal decisions in the same manner is a lousy way to direct your high school life, and an ineffective strategy for getting into college.

4. Considering too much information and advice from uninformed sources.
Lots of people who know little or nothing about how to get into college seem to have no problem doling out advice and purported insider information about how to do just that. If you repeatedly indulge those people, if you take their unsolicited information as admissions gospel, you’ll end up with a lot of conflicting recommendations, most or all of which will do nothing to help you get where you want to go. Admissions officers, high school counselors, and qualified private counselors are reliable, informed college admissions sources. Your friends and neighbors usually are not (unless they also fall into one of those aforementioned groups). It’s hard to ignore the often enticing tidbits, but you’ve got better—and more effective—things to do than base your college planning decisions on sources who aren’t actually sharing responsibility for the outcome.

5. Exclusively aiming to please one dream school.
There’s a fine line between aligning your college planning with your goals and obsessing over how to please one school. It’s smart planning to visit the websites of the schools that interest you so you can learn about their course planning recommendations, testing requirements, and elements of a complete application. But if you start asking questions like, “Would Princeton rather that I keep playing the clarinet, or join the volleyball team?” you’ve moved from smart college planning to obsessive efforts to please. There is no one, prescribed, correct path of admission to most colleges. In fact, all but the most specialized schools come right out and tell you that they are looking for a freshman class comprised of a variety of backgrounds, interests, and experiences. So don’t search for that one way into your dream school. Planning without a singular obsession on one school won’t just give you even more college options—it will likely improve your chances of admission at the school you resisted the urge to obsess over.