Five college admissions factors that don’t matter as much as people think they do

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. 

1.  Connections.

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.

“He’s seventeen. He’ll screw it up.”

At a high school college night last week, a parent approached me afterwards and said,

"I know I'm not supposed to be filling out my son's applications.  But he's seventeen.  He's procrastinating and leaving it all for the last minute.  I feel like this is just too important for me to let him screw it up." (A phrase referenced often in the book by the former dean of admissions from MIT, Marilee Jones, about how parents should approach the college application process.)

As much as I discourage parents from taking over their kids' college application process, I still understand why even the most well intentioned moms and dads sometimes can't stop themselves.

I understand why, after watching your kid grow up, and saving all those years for his college fund, you'd get nervous when you see him leaving those essays and applications unfinished with the deadlines creeping up.  And when you imagine him losing out on college options all because of seventeen year old procrastination or disorganization, it's hard not to jump in and protect him, and you, from that disappointment.  I get that. 

For those parents, I'd just offer two gentle reminders. 

1.  When your kids go to college, you really are going to have to let them take care of things, both important and unimportant, on their own.  The press writes articles about parents who don't let go then. This is the time to start preparing your kids for that independence.

2.  Taking over the college application process sends a pretty bad message to your kid.  It means you either don't trust him or don't believe he can get into college on his own.  I understand that when a kid plays 5 hours of video games instead of working on his college applications, he's not giving you a lot of reasons to trust him.  Still, the message will be received.

If you're worried that your teen isn't taking the college application process seriously enough, resist the urge to jump in and take it seriously for them.  Instead, be honest about your concerns.  Tell them how excited you are about their college future.  Let them know the efforts you've made to save for their college tuition, and the sacrifices you're willing to make to send them. 

I'm not suggesting you say those things to make your teen feel guilty.  I think a mature teen will appreciate how much emotional and financial investmenet you're willing to make in them. 

Then they might be a little more open to hearing your concerns about the looming deadlines and the lack of application action.

For high school counselors: How to teach families more by sharing less

As counselors, we're all teachers, too.  We educate families every day.  Most high school counselors I've met do a lot to teach their families how to prepare for, apply, get accepted and pay for college.  It's a crucial job with an unreasonable amount of information to convey.  But I think the best way to teach families–not just give them information, but to actually get them learn and to use it–might be surprising. 

Share less.

I've done hundreds of college admissions speeches at high schools.  But I realized this year that when I share ten college application tips with seniors and their parents, while most families (hopefully) enjoy the speech, they don't remember the tips when they leave.  They remember one or two of them, but they don't recall all the advice about how to put them into action.  They remember the story I told about the Collegewise kid who wrote her essay about losing all those elections, but they don't remember why I shared it.  So while I gave an entertaining speech that people seemed to like, I haven't really taught them anything (they didn't learn it if they can't go home and do it).   

So I've been trying something new.  Before I do a speech, I figure out the 2-3 most important lessons I want the audience to take away from it.  Everything other than those 2-3 main points is secondary and either gets cut out or used to support one of the main points.  It's hard to delete information because everything feels important.  But I do it anyway and focus on the upside–that my most important points are going to get the majority of the attention.

Then I spend the entire speech selling those 2-3 main points. I share stories about Collegewise kids and parents, what they did, and what happened as a result.  I try to paint a vivid picture of what will happen if they follow these 2-3 pieces of advice.  And I give them marching orders–I tell them how to put it in action when they leave.  The feedback I've been getting so far has been great. 

I'm not suggesting that you dumb down your information; it's just the opposite.  You're picking the points that deserve the most attention and then carving out time to give it to them.  I don't need 45 minutes to explain what it means when a college has a January 1 deadline.  Instead, one of my points might be, "Don't let anyone care more about your college applications than you do."  That one idea lends itself to several stories about kids taking responsibility for the college applications, not allowing parents to fill out the application or write the essays, and following up with schools to make sure the application is complete.  But they all lead back to the main point that kids are the ones going to college, so they should care about it more than everyone else in their life.  If families just remember that one point, they end up making better decisions throughout the application process. 

Here are a few ways I think a high school counselor might try this:

  • If you write a newsletter, instead of writing 12 articles on different topics, pick the 2-3 most important things you want families to know at this time of year, and use your newsletter to teach them.  A family that learns and does those three things won't get mad at you for cutting out the article about good questions to ask on a campus visit.  And they'll be even more likely to read the next issue because what you taught them was so valuable.
  • If your office is hosting a "senior parent night" at your school, what are the most important actions you want your audience to take after they leave?  Do you want them to start their college searches, begin their applications, utilize the services your school provides?  Pick the most important ones and use the speech to sell them on it.
  • If you keep a webpage of helpful college planning resources, trim it down and play favorites.  Giving them 18 links to different websites with information about financial aid and scholarships isn't as helpful as telling them which 2-3 you and your counseling team think are the best. 
  • If you attend a conference, take great notes during the sessions, pick the 2-3 best ones you attended, and do a write up for your families and fellow counselors.   
  • You can also use the "less rule" to help set families' expectations of how your office can help them.  If you encourage them to "utilize your counseling office," they don't have a clear picture of what that means.  Promise less, and they'll utilize you more effectively.  That sounds like this.

"We're here to try to answer all of your college-related questions.  In particular, here are three areas where we feel we can be of great benefit to our students."

Telling them everything might not be as valuable as teaching them something.  As usual, your mileage may vary.  But it's been working well for me and I thought I'd share.  I hope it helps.   

 

45 minutes of free college application advice

In case you missed our regulararly scheduled programming, here's a link to last night's episode of our online TV show.  We talked for 30 minutes about college applications, then did 15 minutes of Q and A. 

We'll be back on air Tuesday, December 7 at 6 p.m. PST.  You can join us at our channel.

"How to Revive Lifeless Applications"

with Kevin and Arun



Watch live video from College Admissions Live on Justin.tv 

Advice for nervous parents of college applicants

Kids aren't the only ones who feel judged during the college admissions process.  A lot of parents understandably worry that their student's admissions success or failure will somehow be a reflection on their parenting, that if the dream college says, "No," it will be a sign that you just didn't do as good of a job as the other parents at the dinner party who won't stop talking about their kids' awards, SAT scores and total number of community service hours completed. 

When you feel that college application anxiety start to come on, ask yourself two questions:

1.  Have you raised a good kid (even if your teen occasionally tries your patience like even the best teens do)?

2.  Have you done your best as a parent (even if you've occasionally made mistakes like even the best parents do)?

If you can answer "Yes" to those two questions, really, how much more can any parent reasonably be expected to do?

A parent can't control which colleges accept or deny your student.  All you can do is make sure you keep answering "Yes" to those prior two questions.  Instead of letting yourself feel judged, be proud of your efforts to raise a good kid and be a good parent.  And remember that our entire system of education (and our society) would have collapsed long ago if the only way to become happy and successful in life were to attend one of about 40 prestigious colleges who reject almost everybody who applies.

Good kids with supportive parents will be fine no matter where they go to college.

Last call to join us online tonight for free college application advice

We'll be live online tonight for:

How to Revive Lifeless College Applications
with hosts Kevin McMullin and Arun Ponnusamy
Wednesday, November 3
Live @ 6 p.m. PST 
For free, at our online channel

We'll discuss…

•    Why sharing fewer activities and awards can tell a college even more about you.
•    How successful applicants inject personality to make their applications memorable (without resorting to gimmicks).
•    Why resumes, extra letters of recommendation, and samples of your art or music sometimes hurt your chances more than they help.

We'll talk for 30 minutes, then you ask questions for the final 15 minutes (via the channel's chat function).

How to watch
Just visit our channel tonight, November 3rd at 6 p.m. PST. (What time is that in my time zone?)

We hope you'll tune in to join us!

Are you the Randy Moss of the classroom?

Randy Moss is one of the greatest receivers ever to play in the NFL.  And as of today, he appears to have been cut from his team (again).

Nobody disputes that Moss is a great receiver.  It's his attitude that's the problem.  He's known to give up in the middle of a play especially if he doesn't think the ball is coming to him.  He complains (about coaches, the team, and not getting the ball thrown to him often enough).  He can make a team a lot better when he wants to, but coaches know that they can't count on him to lead by example with a good attitude and a consistent work ethic.  That's why it appears that he's unemployed for the second time in three months.  

A straight-A student who only participates when participation is counted towards his grade, who only talks to teachers after class when he needs extra credit, who fought with his counselor for two weeks to get his Spanish grade changed from a B to an A, and who seems to care a lot more about his grade than he does about learning the material?   He's like the Randy Moss of the classroom.

Your attitude towards learning says as much if not more about what kind of student you are than your grades do.  The students who teachers enjoy having in class, who teachers are happy to recommend strongly to their chosen colleges, they're often those who have the best attitudes, even if they don't have the highest grades.

A lot of receivers who aren't nearly as good as Randy Moss still have jobs today.  They don't have better hands–they just have better attitudes.   

 

A homework and study tip

Imagine you were taking the SAT and every 5 minutes, somebody interrupted you and asked you a question like,

"Excuse me, do you know what time it is"?

"How do I get to the closest deli from here?"

"Want to hear a funny story about my most embarrassing moment?  Well, here it is."

Every five minutes, for the entire 3 and 1/2 hours.  What a disaster. 

Wouldn't it completely disrupt your concentration?  Could you possibly be expected to focus and do well while wading through critical reading passages and trying to figure out math questions about two trains leaving two different destinations, one traveling at 1/3 the speed of the other train?

No matter what score you got, you'd know you could have done better if that idiot would have just shut up and let you concentrate.  You'd feel like you didn't even get a fair chance to do well on the test. 

If you're answering emails, texting or checking Facebook every five minutes while you're trying to study, isn't that pretty much the same thing?  

 

You’re not perfect, and neither is your future college

There's a great line in my favorite movie, Good Will Hunting, in which Will's psychologist says this about Will's new love interest:

NewQuotation

You're not perfect, sport.  And let me save you the suspense–this girl you've met, she's not perfect either. But the question is whether or not you're perfect for each other. That's the whole deal.  That's what intimacy is all about. You can know everything in the world, sport. But the only way of finding out that one is by giving it a shot."

That's a lot like how finding your college match works.

I talk a lot about college matchmaking and finding schools that fit you.  But I don't believe in collegiate soul mates (at least not until you've officially dated one for awhile).

If you're applying to college, you might believe that you've found the one perfect college for you.  But trust me ("sport"), it's not perfect.  No college is.  And it's not the only one where you could be happy.  There are dozens of colleges who's characteristics are similar enough on paper that you couldn't possibly tell the difference between them. 

Wherever you end up at college, there are going to things you like and dislike about it.  But if you choose carefully and then commit to making that four-year relationship work, your chances of looking back on the experience as one spent at your collegiate version of a soul mate increase exponentially.

So don't worry about finding the perfect college.  That would be like evaluating potential dates based on whether or not you want to marry them–you couldn't possibly know for sure.  Instead, accept the uncertainty and concentrate on choosing your list of colleges carefully.  Just as you shouldn't necessarily date anyone who asks, you shouldn't apply to any college just because it looks nice or because other people seem to like it.  Think about what would really make you happy.  Do your research.  Visit colleges campuses.  Enjoy how many great potential matches there are.

A simple but crucial tip for college interviews

Stefanie in our Irvine office offers this college interview tip–make sure you listen to the question.

Don't scoff.  That might sound obvious, but a lot of students are so concerned about their answers that they forget to listen to–and consequently don't answer–the question. 

Stefanie interviewed over 400 students while she was an admissions officer at USC.  And the first question she asked most of them was,

"Tell me a little bit about your high school, maybe one thing you like about it, and one thing you wish was different."

She asked it as a general question to help students feel comfortable and ease into the interview.  But a lot of students would go right to detailed descriptions of their activities.  They were so anxious, they couldn't wait to start talking about what they'd accomplished.  But that wasn't the question they'd been asked.

None of those kids torpedoed their chances of admission with those answers alone, by the way.  No college interviewer is out to get you, to trip you up and find the reason to reject your application.  But it certainly would have been a stronger start if they'd carefully considered the question and given a thoughtful answer.  

So during your college interviews, just relax and listen carefully to the question.  If you don't have an answer right away, that's OK.  Stop for a second and think about it.  That's what thoughtful people do when posed with a good question.

But most importantly, remember that your college interview is a conversation.  Good conversationalists are just as good at listening as they are at talking.

You can find even more advice in our "College Interviews" video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.