And what it really takes to get in

Many high school students and their parents don’t fully understand the college admissions process. They believe myths that can hurt a student’s chances of getting into his/her school of choice…or cause students to waste time and money applying to schools that really are not within reach.

MYTH: A college sent me a letter (or an e-mail) asking me to apply, so I’m likely to get in.

Reality: Letters and e-mails encouraging application are very widely distributed. Colleges want as many students as possible to apply—even students who have no realistic chance of acceptance. The more applicants they reject, the more selective and desirable the institutions seem in college rankings.

MYTH: I need a long list of extracurricular activities and interests to get into a top school.

Reality: Colleges no longer seek out students who have long and varied lists of projects and activities. These days, they prefer students who have specialized interests that they’ve pursued extensively. Students should emphasize one or two areas in which they have the greatest interest and show how they have gone above and beyond in these areas.

MYTH: As long as my essay is well-written, the topic is relatively unimportant.

Reality: The main essay of a college application should revolve around the student’s primary scholarly passion. That’s what colleges want to know about most, so writing about anything else is a wasted opportunity.

Many of the other common essay topics are best avoided. Essays about how working for a charity changed the student’s life come off as clichéd and phony…essays about what the student learned from an important role model might help that role model get into the college, but they don’t do much for the essay writer.

Helpful: After the essay is written, go over it to improve it—10 to 15 times. Good essays don’t happen in the first draft.

MYTH: My high school doesn’t rank students, so colleges won’t know where I stand.

Reality: High schools that don’t rank their students usually still calculate a “GPA distribution.” Colleges use this data to determine where applicants stand in their classes. Unfortunately, few students know that this GPA distribution exists, much less where they stand on it. In my experience, many students overestimate their class standing and apply mainly to schools at which they have little hope of acceptance. I’ve had students from high schools that don’t rank tell me that they’re at the top of their class…only to learn from their high school’s GPA distribution that they’re not even in the top 10%.

A high schooler who is told that his school does not rank students should ask his guidance counselor for a copy of the official high school profile that has all the information colleges are privy to. It’s a public document that students are entitled to see.

Helpful: Also ask the guidance counselor if the school uses Naviance, a computer program that tracks the college applications and acceptances of the school’s graduates. If so, this program can be used to gauge where students from the high school must fall along the school’s GPA distribution in order to have a realistic chance of being accepted at a particular college.

MYTH: High SAT scores will get me into a top college.

Reality: Low SAT scores can cost an applicant a shot at a top college, but high scores alone won’t guarantee entry. Top schools usually turn down applicants who have high SAT scores but less than stellar GPAs. And Ivy League schools reject plenty of students who have perfect SAT scores.

MYTH: Attending a private high school improves my odds of getting into a good college.

Reality: There was a time when prestigious private high schools served as feeder schools for top colleges and universities, greatly improving students’ odds of acceptance, but those times are past. These days, acceptance rates are almost identical for students applying from public high schools and those applying from private schools. Attending a private high school still could be beneficial for students who require the small class size or other resources offered by the private schools to thrive…or for those who live in public school districts with very poor schools.

Students applying to college from parochial high schools actually are at a slight statistical disadvantage compared with other applicants, likely because parochial school students take classes such as theology that do not match up well with the courses that colleges and universities tend to look for on transcripts. (Graduating from a parochial school can be advantageous when applying to a religious university or college such as Boston College, Georgetown, Notre Dame or Villanova.)

Home-schooled students typically are at a slight disadvantage, too, as they often don’t take as many AP or achievement tests or win as many statewide honors as non-home–schooled students of similar ability.

MYTH: I’ll wow them in my interview to make up for my low scores/grades.

Reality: College interviews don’t count for much—they’re a small part of the admissions process. A great interview might help a borderline candidate get in, but it won’t make enough of a difference for a sub-par candidate.

MYTH: I should wait to apply—rather than apply for early decision—if I can use the extra time to improve my GPA.

Reality: The odds of admission are so much better during the early decision process—three to six times better at many schools—that it’s definitely worth applying for early decision to the student’s top-choice school, even if that means the student’s GPA is a bit lower than it might be in a few months.

Example: At University of Pennsylvania, half the class is filled during the early decision process—even though only one-tenth as many students apply for early decision as apply during the standard admission process.

There’s almost no risk that applying for early decision will hurt a student’s chances of getting into a school. If the student had any chance of acceptance, he will at worst be deferred, not rejected. A deferred student’s odds of acceptance during the standard application process only are improved by the fact that he applied early—it tells the school that it’s the student’s top choice.

The early application advantage is not as dramatic at schools offering “early action” rather than early decision, but there still is some upside. (With early action, students are not required to attend if accepted.)