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College Admission Myths

Arbor Road Academy
March 2021 Blog
Nancy Schneider

I recently read Jeffrey Selingo’s newest book on college admissions, published late last year: Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. Hands down, his book is the best examination of college admissions that I have ever read. I highly recommend it to parents who are trying to understand the complicated admissions process.
As an academic coach, not a college counselor, I have watched families struggle with the college application process. I have worked to dispel myths and misunderstandings about the system that I have observed over the past fifteen years. Selingo’s book reiterates that the guidance I have long offered my families holds true today. While this blog, inspired by Selingo’s book, may be too late to benefit my seniors, I hope that parents of underclassmen will find it useful.
The Myths: 
  1. If my child works hard, achieves all A’s, and is at the very top of his or her class, he or she can earn admission to any college in the country.
  2. My child is an all-around superstar and will, therefore, apply for and earn lots of merit aid.
  3. My teenaged sports phenom will be able to get into college on a full-ride athletic scholarship.
  4. My child and I can talk about the cost of his or her education after admissions decisions are rendered.
  5. College decisions are personal.
  • While getting into college is not difficult, getting into the most competitive colleges in our country is very difficult – more difficult than most parents recognize until well into high school and often after hopes and dreams have formed. 
Generally, we have ample available seats at college institutions in our country. Students who do not get into any college at all have most likely applied only to schools that are reaches or poor fits for them based on their grades and course rigor. 
We are conditioned by society, though, to want our children to matriculate to one of the most competitive academic institutions in the country. We reason that, surely, if our children can study at an Ivy League school, UVA, UNC, Duke, or a comparable high-ranking college, then they will rub shoulders with movers and shakers and boost their résumés significantly, so much so that any concerns about their financial futures will be alleviated. However, the number of valedictorians and other senior superstars each year in our country and internationally is great, and most of them are vying for spots at the same top-ranking schools.
Importantly, our students will not necessarily thrive at these competitive institutions, so we must keep an open mind about the process. Not every student will be happy and successful at these highly selective schools: the pressure, particularly if the college does not fit the student, could be overwhelming, and the student may not feel comfortable socially. Often, the proverbial big fish in a small pond offers a better opportunity for many strong students. 
As a country, we need to adjust our attitudes about college education. At its heart, college is about academics and building a future, not about car decals, sports, or fraternities. What students accomplish in college is far more important than where they go. 
  • Merit scholarships are elusive.  
Through applications and a lot of hard work, a student who has performed well in high school may access some merit money, usually modest amounts of merit money in comparison to tuition costs. Most colleges offer some merit money; however, the more selective the college is, the less merit money is available. As an example, some state universities offer merit money to lure non-needy out-of-state students, often based on test scores. The very top universities, however, do not need to dangle such enticements. Ivy League universities and other very selective colleges offer no merit money.
If a family friend or acquaintance reports that his or her child is on “merit scholarship” at a top-tier traditional college, the student’s scholarship, more often than not, is financial aid, based on ability to pay. Yes, the child is likely a strong student who earned admission to the school, but usually he or she did not earn merit money on top of admission. Rather, the school awarded financial aid based on the student’s FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  
  • Perceptions about sports scholarships are inflated.
Do not assume that money will flow to our children because they are star athletes. Ivy League schools and Division III colleges offer no sports scholarships. Division I colleges rarely offer full rides to athletes. Instead, they often spread out a handful of full scholarships among a much larger team of athletes, which means that each athlete earns a mere fraction of full tuition.
Parents of young children who show great promise on the basketball court, on the soccer field, or in the gym should continue that sport only because their children truly love it, not because the sport will pay their way through college.  
  • College is more expensive than most, even informed, parents think, and they can save themselves a lot of angst by having clear conversations about finances with their children before applications are filed.  
The crunch time between the time when admissions decisions are received and when students must commit to their college of choice is short. Financial aid offers can be complicated and difficult to understand. Our children have the capacity to comprehend financial choices and limitations, but in my experience, children are much more understanding if they anticipate the possibility that financial limitations may preclude them from matriculating to their dream school when they learn about those limitations well before earning admission.  
  • Try not to take rejection letters personally.
The colleges assessing our children have only read our children’s applications, essays, recommendations, and test scores. They reject our students because, on paper, they are not a good fit for the evolving class at that particular institution. Admissions committees admit classes, not students. They are trying to build a diverse class that comes from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of strengths. In other words, they do not need a class full of students who are only interested in computer engineering. Our students’ interests and pursuits can either help them or cost them in college admissions, depending on the schools’ needs. Understanding admissions from this perspective can help our children retain self-confidence and navigate the college admissions process more successfully and optimistically.  
A good college counselor and a copy of Selingo’s book can make the college process more transparent. Please let me know if you need a referral.
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