10 Costly Admission Mistakes

Forbes’ Steve Cohen posted a great article on costly admission mistakes.  It was so imformative, we posed a condensed version here.  (Click on the link at the end of the post for the entire article.)

It’s panic time for more than a million high school seniors and their parents.  Competition for admission to the nation’s “top” colleges has never been tougher.  A huge cohort of kids combined with more qualified, full-tuition-paying foreign students – all of them applying to more colleges – makes the odds of getting in simply awful.  Here are 10 mistakes that can be easily avoided.

Mistake 1: Keep that college search narrowly focused. – Kids and parents have to look beyond the most famous brand names you’re probably familiar with.  But with more than 3,000 college and universities in the US and Canada, there are more than few that will be a good fit for a student.

One of the most common mistakes kids make is the size of the colleges they consider.  The vast majority of high school seniors limit their initial search to either large universities or small colleges.   A high school student’s frame of reference is pretty limited, and their perceptions of what big-vs-small colleges offer is usually at least half-wrong.  (Large universities almost always offer small seminars and small liberal arts colleges typically require students to take a few large lecture classes.)

The single most important mistake a student can avoid is not visiting enough colleges – large and small.

Mistake 2: “Top” college lists matter. But for mostly the wrong reasons.  Just this week I picked up three different magazines that had published their “top” college lists.  I will marvel at how subjective, skewed, and misleading they are.  But that’s not to say that they aren’t important.  Because they are in one very significant way: they reinforce a college’s “brand” value.  By no means should a family discard a possible college because it “ranks” a dozen places below a competitor.

Mistake 3: Colleges are looking for the well-rounded kid. They are looking for the well-rounded class.  Kids – egged on by their parents – think that they need a laundry list of extracurricular activities, sports, and a summer experience volunteering as a latrine-builder in  Belize in order to get into a top college.  Absolutely not true.  Colleges put together their entering class as a mosaic: a few great scholars for each academic department; a handful of athletes; some musicians, dancers, and theater stars; a few for racial and economic diversity; some potential club leaders, etc.  colleges want a kid who is devoted to – and excels at – something.

Mistake 4: The essay better be perfect – and seriously substantive. It might be all those things; or not.  What it must be is the kid’s own.  Admission officers, who typically read more than 50 sets of essays a night — can see through those written with “just a little polishing” by parents or counselors in a heartbeat.  The essay should answer the question asked, and provide insight into what makes the applicant tick.  Whenever possible, kids should stay away from the “3-D’s”: death. disease, and divorce. 

Mistake 5: Get those VIP Recommendations in Early. There is a well-established saying in the admission world: the thicker the folder, the thicker the kid.  Do not ask VIP’s – Congressmen, corporate CEO’s, members of the college’s board of trustees – to write recommendations for your kid.  Unless your child has actually worked for that person in a real and substantive context.  Colleges want teacher recommendations. – teachers who can provide insight into the student’s interests, strengths and growth.

Mistake 6: Ignore the Interview; It Doesn’t Really Count. Although most colleges don’t require personal interviews – too many kids applying; and too many who live too far away – if they are offered, take advantage of them.  And yes they count – sometimes a lot.  (And that includes alumni interviews.)  Which means kids should be prepared to speak articulately about themselves and knowledgably about the college they are visiting.

Mistake 7: Nobody is Going to Check my Facebook Page.  Don’t count on it.  More and more colleges are setting up Facebook pages and want to friend potential applicants.  So students should show some discretion about what they post.

Admission officers also take not of little things, like a student’s e-mail address.  I’ve heard more than a few stories of admission officers deciding to reject a candidate “on the bubble” because of an e-mail address such as “hotchickatthemall @hotmail”.

Mistake 8: Colleges are flexible about deadlines. Ha; no way!  Be forewarned: do not miss a deadline.

Mistake 9: We can’t afford Big Name College.  There is a lot of money available for college.  Some of it is scholarship money; most of it is loan money.  And while parents and kids may have an understandable aversion to taking on debt, access to money is almost never a barrier to attending a college.

Applying for financial aid can affect one’s chances of admission – if the college is not “need blind” in its admission policy.  

Mistake 10: Focus on Finding Money.  The money is out there, and parents simply have to apply for it.  But “simply” is a misnomer.  The process is run – in parallel — by the federal government and the individual colleges.  And you have to deal with both.  Applying for financial aid – starting with the government’s FAFSA form and often including the College Board’s “Profile”  form – the process is much like root canal without anesthesia.  But if you want any sort of scholarship or low-interest loan, you have to deal with it.

Never, ever pay for a scholarship matching service!  The vast majority of “weird” scholarships – along with government scholarships and low-interest loans – are administered through the college’s financial aid office. 

The college admission process is rarely fun.  But it can be tolerable and less stressful if you avoid these classic mistakes.


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