A friend directed me to a recent Washington Post column on 7 College Admissions Myths. No argument with what the WaPo wrote, but I do find the list pretty basic. Many students and parents in the know may already be on top of most of these. Here’s my own list drawn from countless hours of focus group research, spending a bunch of time on college campuses, and my highly subjective experience with my own two children:
- You can learn about colleges from a summer visit. I mean, I guess you can if by “college” you mean the buildings, the proximity to a major airport, and the comparative skill of the admissions staff. But if you want to understand a college, you need to visit when classes are in session. How else will you be able to meet current students and understand the student culture?
- It is valid to judge an institution of higher education based on the impression you draw from the student tour. This is one of the most ridiculous things I hear in the course of my work. It astonishes me how many well-meaning and supposedly sophisticated parents buy into this. But no, it is not valid to cast judgment on a college based on your experience of the tour. Think about it – even the smallest college has resources and social groups you won’t fully discover in four years on campus. If you want to conduct a good college selection process, you need to keep an open mind and understand that an institution of higher learning is more than just the tour.
- You are shopping for a college. No you’re not. If you are in the market for a highly selective institution, they are shopping for you. Time to get a little more humble. Your accomplishments are not as special as you think.
- You could be happy anywhere. Not true, actually. Usually students say this to justify spending a lot of their time focusing on reach schools and being indifferent to their targets and safeties. The savvy college shopper takes those latter two categories seriously understanding that, at the end of the day, he or she may end up at one. And, no, if you don’t take your targets and safeties seriously, you could in fact end up at someplace you will not like.
- The prestigious schools are good at everything. It’s amazing how common this one is but, of course, it is not true. Even the most prestigious schools have inconsistent quality in certain programs and majors. If a program, such as electrical engineering or philosophy, is truly important to you, you should not simply assume it will be well-covered at the prestigious college of your dreams.
- All the top schools provide the same generous need-based financial aid. In fact the differences between even top colleges on financial aid awards are substantial. The problem here is that the fine-print is so confusing that it is simply impossible for even the most informed and diligent consumer to figure these differences out. If need-based financial aid is important to you, it will be necessary to apply to a good number of institutions and understand that at the end of the day you will be comparing varying financial aid packages as part of your admissions process.
- The food is o.k. at colleges. It’s not. At most place it sucks. You will quickly tire of the food, and if eating a healthy diet is important to you, you will be seriously challenged. The gyms are not universally so great either.