And how to avoid them!
Audio Version (on YouTube)
Whether your son or daughter wants to go to Stanford, University of Michigan, or Lewis & Clark, the college application process is ridiculously, unnecessarily complicated. On top of this, what parents typically hear about how to help their children navigate high school and get into selective colleges only feeds the anxiety and is often completely wrong!
Mistake 1: Families listen to expectation lowerers and dream-busters.
Unfortunately, many, many people will offer their opinion about your child's chances of getting accepted into a top college. These people are typically other parents who have "heard" some fact or rumor about a college's acceptance policies or a high school counselor who tries to lower a family's expectations.
Over the years, I have heard so many wrong facts and total misconceptions about how the process works that I often advise trying not to talk to other parents about the process. Of course, friends can be supportive, but they don't know your child or their potential, so please take everything you hear with a grain of salt. In fact, if you ever have a question about a college's policies, you can always call the admissions office and ask!
Additionally, while I used to be a public and private school teacher and have a great respect for many high school counselors, I also know that their good intentions can be a bit misplaced. Why anyone would tell a student that they "can't" do something or "won't get in" boggles my mind. While it is true that not every student can get accepted into every college, I have found that students often start coming into their own as high school progresses. Consequently, it is unfair to judge them based on their academic performance in 9th and 10th grade without knowing anything else about them. My own principal told me I would never get into Stanford, and I shouldn't bother applying. But the idea of going to Stanford motivated me, and I figured, what do I have to lose simply by applying?…Then I got accepted.
Mistake 2: Families think that GPA and SAT/ACT scores are the only criteria top colleges use in admission.
There are over 4000 four-year colleges in this country alone, and over 1300 of them no longer require the SAT or ACT! The point is that no matter what your child's GPA and test scores, he or she CAN get into a good college. Oh, but I hear many of your out there thinking, "Sure, but what about the most selective colleges?"
Ok, to be clear, getting straight Cs in high school will not result in an Ivy-League acceptance. However, the "GPA" is simply a number; it has no context. I had a student who got a C in 9th grade and several Bs in 9th and 10th grade only to continually do better throughout high school and get into colleges such as Vanderbilt and Northwestern. The truth is that no matter what your child's "numbers" are, there are thousands of students with those same numbers (or better). Therefore, there must be other reasons why colleges accept certain students over others. Now these reasons vary among colleges, but admissions offices want to create diverse and interesting incoming classes. This means that while students should certain strive to achieve in school, they should not believe that just because they aren't going to be valedictorian does it mean they won't get accepted into great schools!
Mistake 3: Families believe that doing more extracurricular activities looks "better" to admissions officers.
I once had a student whose high school counselor told me he would "never get accepted" into Stanford because he did not have any traditional extracurriculars (sound familiar?). What he didn't know, however, was that this boy pursued interests outside of school simply because he enjoyed them. He collected fish from around the world. He was ranked in chess. And he spent hours making his own music. The truth is that I believe he got into Stanford precisely because he didn't follow the norm, join 47 clubs and try to do more and more to stand out. Instead, he pursued a few activities in depth that showed his authentic interests. This doesn't mean students shouldn't play sports or perform in theater or even join clubs. It simply means that by helping your child figure out what they might really enjoy doing and encouraging them to pursue real interests, they will not only have better chances of getting into more colleges, but they can also end up being a more interesting, fulfilled human being.
Mistake 4: Families do not know when teenagers really find the motivation to prepare for the SAT/ACT.
As an adult, it makes complete sense that students should start studying for the SAT or ACT as soon as possible so they have more time to prepare and so they can get a strong score earlier and reduce the stress of having to take it later in the year.
While I am all about reducing stress, I also know the reality of how teenagers actually work (at least most of them). First, students need to have taken enough math (typically through Algebra 2 or trigonometry) in order to understand the material. Second, and more importantly, most of the thousands of students I have tutored or coached over the years don't have the maturity and the motivation to really focus on the test until second semester of junior year. The challenge is that, typically, second semester of junior year is the one with the most work. On top of this, most students (boys in particular) don't realize just how awesome college is until around spring break (sometimes even later). In fact, many students really step up their game once they have an idea of where they want to attend and realize the kind of score they are going to need. (Note: simply you telling them this information rarely works; they have to realize on their own.)
Therefore, while I do suggest students start studying sometime between late summer before eleventh grade to January of eleventh grade (no, this isn't too late to start), the majority of students—even high achieving ones—won't get the score they want until after 2-4 tests. This means they may very well be taking the tests in the fall of senior year. Of course. there are exceptions, but by understanding this timeline and the psychology of a teenager, you can manage your expectations and support your child, knowing it may take them some time to get there.
Mistake 5: Families hear that a student must take the hardest classes every year to have a chance of getting accepted.
This is a classic one. While it is true that students should challenge themselves by taking college preparatory classes, such as honors or APs, if they want to have the best chance of getting into the most selective colleges, there are no "minimum number of classes" they must take in order to have a chance. College admissions often becomes a competition to keep up with students who seem to be doing more and more and more. However, like with the misconception about GPA, a student does not need to take every AP class in order to get into Harvard (or whatever name you want to use here. This is evidenced by the fact that there are many students who have done everything possible but still not gotten in. The approach I have had my students take over the years runs counter to the "doing more" mentality. Instead, students should look to challenge themselves while staying balanced. By keeping sane and by actually freeing up some time, students can then pursue other interests that can help them both standout to admissions officers and help them actually enjoy high school.
Armed with this new knowledge, you are already on your way to a successful college application process! And after having helped thousands of students get into great schools, I know everything is going to work out for your family.