Step By Step: Acing Your Application

Peter Hoy

August 13, 2008

Extracurricular Activities

Myth: The more extracurriculars, the better.

Truth: Admissions officers are looking to build a well-rounded class, not a class of well-rounded students. Colleges want students who are passionate and excel at what they do, even if they aren’t involved in everything. Activities that show leadership and dedication to community look particularly good on an application.

GPA
Myth: Grades speak for themselves.

Truth: Out of context, grade point average (GPA) means very little. For one, admissions officers pay attention to the difficulty of classes–getting Bs in hard classes will look better than getting As in easy ones. Secondly, admissions officers consistently work with the same geographic areas over time so they can get to know local high schools and watch for grade inflation. Admissions officers also like to compare class rank with GPA, though many high schools have eliminated this measurement.

Intended Major
Myth: You need to know your major when you apply.

Truth: The most popular major among applicants is “undecided.” Most colleges, especially liberal arts schools, don’t expect incoming students to know what they want to study. If a school just started offering a major, however, it will probably be looking for students to fill it. Conversely, declaring a major that is too popular might even hurt an applicant.

High School
Myth: You need to attend an elite private high school to get into a good college.

Truth: Colleges want high enrollment from underrepresented minorities and first- generation college students, who tend to come from public schools. So even though some private schools are thought of as feeders to top universities, applicants from public schools who have worked hard and have good grades are even more desirable. Colleges also consider the relationships they have built with high schools. If students from a particular high school have excelled at a college in the past, the college will be more likely to accept more students from that high school.

Legacies
Myth: Legacy doesn’t matter.

Truth: The official policy of many colleges is that familial ties only marginally affect admission, but the fact is having a parent who attended the school–especially one who donates money–makes a big difference. A 2004 study by two Princeton professors found that having legacy status is equivalent to a 160-point boost on the SAT. Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers has said, “Legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is.”

List of Schools
Myth: You must list the other schools where you are applying.

Truth: Don’t lie, but avoid the question if you can. Colleges don’t want to admit students who aren’t going to matriculate. It lowers their yield ratio–one of the statistics used in many annual college rankings. If the admissions office thinks you are likely to enroll elsewhere, it is less likely to accept you. College admissions coach Bev Taylor says none of her students have ever been penalized for not answering the question, so she advises them to steer clear of it.

Interview
Myth: You don’t need to interview.

Truth: When possible, students should take advantage of interviews as a chance to share parts of themselves that didn’t fit in the application. Depending on the school, interviews are optional, recommended or required. They can also be either informational or evaluative. Students should practice for evaluative interviews, and consider skipping them only if they don’t come across well in person.

Standardized Tests
Myth: The SATs and the ACTs are the same.

Truth: It is true that colleges will accept scores from either test and consider them equally. But different types of students tend to do better on different tests. The student who does better on ACT, says college admissions coach Bev Taylor, is the overachiever–a hard worker with good grades who doesn’t do as well on standardized tests. On the other hand, a naturally intuitive student who may not have high grades may fare better on the SAT. Taylor recommends students take both SAT and ACT practice-tests and see which score is higher.

Sports Recruiting
Myth: Athletes are always advantaged.

Truth: An athlete’s edge depends what the school is looking for that year. While the admissions office may offer to help the track team one season, it could be focused on the lacrosse team the next. Even the best swimmer may have trouble currying favor at a school that admitted a lot of swim recruits the year before. Just because you’re the first choice for a coach doesn’t mean you’re at the top of the dean of admissions’ list.

Financial Aid
Myth: Admissions offices are need blind.

Truth: Most prestigious colleges now claim to use “need-blind admissions”–meaning they will accept students based on their merits without consideration of their financial situation. But college admissions coach Bev Taylor remains skeptical. “Don’t believe it,” says Taylor. “Some big-name schools say they’re need blind, but what they say in public is not always the same as what goes on behind closed doors.”

Letter of Recommendation
Myth: It doesn’t matter who writes the letter of recommendation as long as it says good things.

Truth: Recommendations should be written by teachers of core courses from junior year of high school–English and math, not art and gym. Students should pick teachers from classes where they worked the hardest, not necessarily got the best grades.

Personal Essays
Myth: Essays will make or break you

Truth: The most subjective piece of the application, the essay has two functions: providing a sample of your writing and letting an admissions officer get to know you. But an essay won’t compensate for bad grades. Harvard director of admissions Dr. Marlyn McGrath Lewis says, “We never base our decisions on essays. We read them carefully, but we understand how easily they can be purchased or written by anyone. They can certainly illuminate a case, but we’d be foolish to base our decisions on them.”