I remember playing the game of telephone as a kid. We all sat in a circle and the “message” started with one person and was whispered from one to the next until it had made it around the entire group. Sometimes we played for fun to see how ridiculous the original statement could become by the end; sometimes we played at the direction of a teacher or coach who wanted to make a point about how distorted your words could become when repeated multiple times.

As a college admissions counselor, I feel as if I’m always at the end of a game of telephone. I hear statements which I’m sure began as truths, but have lost key details (and sometimes the actual truth.)

As a parent, I understand the desire for more information. My children’s schools don’t provide the most comprehensive college counseling and if I were not a professional in this field, I would be seeking information from any source possible. We want our kids to have college options, scholarships, and to beat what feels like impossible odds in the college admissions arena. We want information and are eager to seek out good tips and strategies, but often that means certain statements are blown out of proportion and other key items are overlooked.

Today I want to clarify some of the misstatements I hear on a regular basis and provide links to more detailed explanations.

Here are some misconceptions to avoid and the realities you should understand.

FALSE: GPA / class rank is THE most important factor.

True: a student’s transcript is the most important factor, but the transcript is much more than a simple GPA or rank. Transcripts show grades AND classes.

All A’s is good. But all A’s in easy classes isn’t the same as all A’s in challenging classes. GPA’s are tricky; a 3.9 from one high school may not indicate the same level of achievement as a 3.9 from another school.

I live in Texas where for decades we’ve had the “top 10% rule” for admission to state universities. This has made some students and parents rank obsessed. Keep in mind rank reflects grades and classes taken, but beyond making the cut for automatic admission, it is far less important than the details on your transcript.

For more information: Why Class Rank Matters Less Than You Think

and The Most Important Factor for College Admission[podcast]

FALSE: Avoid harder classes because they will pull down your GPA / class rank.

True: Students should take challenging classes when appropriate and colleges will consider the strength of a student’s schedule.

Continuing the information from above, colleges aren’t just looking for a student with all A’s. Higher grades in “easy” classes may backfire.

We all know the difference in these two students:

Student A Student B
AP English 3 – 89

Physics – 86

AP US History – 87

Pre-Calculus – 90

AP Spanish 4 – 91

Journalism 3—95

English 3 – 96

Aquatic Science – 95

US History – 96

Principles of Math – 98

Athletics – 100

[Office aid]

Colleges are looking for students who are academically prepared to do college level work. Don’t think you can get into a top-level college with a mid-level high school course selection.

FALSE: SAT / ACT scores won’t matter if you have top grades.

(or the equally false)

Top ACT / SAT scores make bad grades irrelevant.

True: ACT & SAT scores are one of many factors colleges consider in making admissions decisions.

Some schools have formulas for automatic admission that involve test scores and rank / GPA. So in a few cases you may be able to balance out low scores with high grades (or vice versa), but these schools are still considering BOTH test scores and grades / classes.

If you don’t have the ACT or SAT score of your dreams, work on it. Yes, colleges know that not everyone is a great test taker, but unless you apply to a test optional school, they are still going to use your SAT or ACT scores to compare you to other applicants.

If you have great test scores and poor (or considerably lower) grades, you run the risk of appearing smart, but lazy. In other words, your high standardized test scores show academic ability, but for some reason, your performance in school does not match up.

FALSE: Everyone needs community service hours to get into college.

This isn’t a “part true, but..” statement; it is just false.

Some high schools require community service. Colleges will consider what a student has done in her or her free time and service can be a positive experience for everyone involved. But there is NO community service requirement for college admission.

For more information on service: Share Your Gifts

I’m not trying to discourage students from participating in service projects, but you don’t need ANY volunteer hours for college admission.

FALSE: Colleges want students who are involved in a lot of extracurricular activities.

True: Colleges want students who have gone beyond what is required in the classroom and taken effort to pursue talents and interests.

Here’s the catch—while colleges like to see involvement, quality is better than quantity. It is better to be truly committed to a couple activities that you are passionate about than to join a long list of groups for which you have little commitment or interest.

Different students will focus their efforts in different ways. My daughter was heavily involved in speech and debate and a few other activities, but never had a job. Other students will have extensive work experience and little involvement with school clubs. Some may be heavily involved in the community or their religious organization. There is no best way to structure your extracurricular time; just find a way to develop your interests and talents beyond your regular school day.

The key is to find activities, organizations, sports, hobbies, or work that you find interesting. Spend time doing things that you love and that make you a better person. Develop your talents and pursue your interests. (And if you aren’t going to be the national Fortnite champion, I’d suggest you do more than play video games! J)

For more information: Extracurricular Activities—What Do Colleges Want?

FALSE: College essays don’t matter. (or)

Your college essay is the most important factor.

True: College essays are one of many factors considered in the admissions process. The importance of your college essay will depend on the schools to which you apply and your other credentials.

It is true that some students do not need essays. Usually they are applying to universities that do not require essays as part of the admission process. Some students will have to write an admissions essay in order to have a complete application, but the quality of that essay carries little weight in admission. In this case the applicant’s other academic achievements are so good (or bad) that the decision is made with little consideration given to the essay. Other times the essay can be an essential part of a student’s file, possibly helping admissions officers made a decision in favor (or against) that particular student.

For more information on the role of essay: Are College Essays Ever Optional?

FALSE: Senior year classes / grades don’t matter.

False! Just false.

It is true that you may not have grades on your transcript from any senior year classes when you apply to college, but every application asks students to list their courses. Colleges want to see that applicants are continuing on a similar academic path senior year. Resist the temptation to take “easy” classes or two many off-periods.

Additionally, to complete any offer of admission, you will need to submit a final transcript at the end of your senior year. Colleges can (and every year actually do) revoke offers of admission for students who don’t finish senior year with the types of grades and classes they submitted in their applications.

FALSE: Lower grades in 9thgrade don’t matter as long as you show improvement.

True: Colleges will look for upward trends in grades and will consider how students have matured and demonstrated improvement, but all high school grades will be seen and considered.

For some of the most selective universities, bad grades in 9thor 10thgrade may be enough to keep you out of consideration for admission. These schools have so many qualified candidates without any lower grades that they don’t need to look beyond the very top of the class. Additionally, large state universities that make admissions decisions based on a combination of test scores, GPA, and rank, may not take the time to notice your improvement; they may just follow their numerical admissions formulas.

If you had lower grades in the past and have resolved the issues that caused you to struggle, look for colleges with a more holistic approach to admission—the schools that consider factors beyond the numbers such as your essays, letters of recommendation, etc. These schools are more likely to take the time to understand your explanation and consider your more recent accomplishments.

FALSE: Colleges want kids who specialize in a particular academic area.

True: Colleges are looking for applicants to fill all types of academic and extracurricular roles on campus. They need tuba players, physics majors, 3rdbasemen, dancers, writers, engineers, etc. While they are looking to fill up a well-rounded class of accomplished students, colleges also understand that students often develop new interests, change their minds (and their majors).

The most important factor to colleges is an applicant’s ability to fit into the university and do the work. This means academic preparedness is far more important than specialization in a particular area.

Additionally, the best foundation for most academic fields comes from a student’s core academic courses in high school. An applicant interested in engineering or medicine, for example, would be better served to demonstrate strong grades in challenging math and science classes. Choosing to take advanced calculus, physics, or chemistry will be far more impressive than elective courses, even if those electives were in the fields of engineering or medicine.

For more information: Honest, Sometimes Unpopular, Course Selection Advice


As you and your family work through the college admission process, from early planning to the applications and final decisions, be sure to fact check some of the advice you may hear. When in doubt, feel free to pick up the phone and call a college or university directly to inquire about their admissions process.

If you have questions, feel free to post them on the College Prep Results Facebook Page; I am happy to help.