Myths and Realities of College Admission

Podcast 193: What’s REALLY Important in

College Admissions?

Many families are confused about where to start with college admissions, and there is a lot of faulty information out there.

In this episode of “The College Prep Podcast”, I lay out, in concrete terms, what’s important when prepping for college and correct some myths that many families have.

Specifically, we explore:

  • 3 great underutilized resources for getting accurate information about colleges
  • 3 main criteria colleges look at when determining if you are a good fit for their school
  • 5 myths about the college admissions process (like: “you have to have top grades and great scores to get into any school”) and what is actually true instead

Listen here. 

All In! How To Avoid Overcommitting On Extracurricular Activities

In the past week I’ve met three new students who told me they were no longer involved in extracurricular activities because they had committed all their time to one thing which didn’t work out.

  • “Susan” played competitive softball.  She was on the school’s varsity team and a competitive select club team.  Last fall an injury permanently ended her ability to play.  Currently her only extracurricular activity is physical therapy.
  • “James” was in band.  He marched every fall, played concerts and competitions in the spring, and attended camp in the summer.  Band consumed his free time.  After marching season, he quit, primarily due to personality conflicts, but he was also burnt out on spending 20 hours a week on band.  Currently he is enjoying his extra time, but he has no other extracurricular activities.
  • “Morgan” was the queen of competitive cheer.  From the time she was in elementary school, she lived in the gym.  She took tumbling lessons, strength and flexibility classes, and competed with some of the best teams in the area. She quit her freshman year saying, “I was tired; it just wasn’t fun anymore.”  She’s currently involved with two clubs at school that take a few hours of her time each month.

Here’s my complaint – had Susan, James, and Morgan completed college applications a year or two ago they would look like superstars– highly involved, holding leadership positions, truly dedicated to developing interests and talents.  But now, junior year, when it counts, they aren’t doing much.

As parents we can talk about overcommitted kids or the pressures to excel from a young age.  But my complaint is with the “all in” mentality we’ve developed with activities. It can start slowly as kids are naturally drawn to some activities over others.  Add the pressure from coaches, teachers, or directors who suggest private lessons, additional practice, or off-season training.  Pretty soon kids are so deeply involved with ONE activity that if they choose to quit or are forced out due to injury, they have nothing left.

I understand that to become truly great in an area sacrifices must be made.  Sometimes potential Olympic gymnasts or figure skaters must forgo the traditional school experience to compete on a national stage at age 15, 16, or 17.  I know Justin Bieber didn’t spend the past two years worried about service hours for National Honor Society.

But most of our kids won’t be performing at the Grammys or Olympics.  Most of them won’t continue in their sport or activity after high school.  So are we doing them a service by allowing them to go all in with one activity at an early age?

Focusing on one activity to the exclusion of others can have drawbacks, even for students who continue to excel.  Students run the risk of appearing one-dimensional and missing out on developing other interests or related skills.

Before you allow or encourage your child to go all in with one activity, ask yourself some questions:

  • Could we make time for a couple hours of something else each week?  (Think service, writing, music, academics, work)
  • What other talents or interests could we promote with another activity?  Can we show another dimension or greater depth?  (Avoid the “dumb jock” stereotype by tutoring before school.  Develop writing and research talent by starting a blog.  Pursue an interest in the medical field by volunteering a few hours a week at the hospital.)
  • Is there a way my child could use his or her talents in another way?  (The athlete who volunteers with Special Olympics or coaches younger students.  The musician who plays at the retirement center every week or helps with the middle school band.)
  • Are we emphasizing the right things? Does our allocation of time and money reflect the values and things we feel are most important?

I love seeing kids who are passionate and involved.  They tend to do better in school.  But when it comes to college admission (and the more important goal of raising responsible, capable, and caring kids) going all out for one activity isn’t as beneficial as finding time for some balance.

My advice to Susan, James, and Morgan was the same.  Get out there and get involved.  Let your choice of clubs, activities, service groups, or work reflect your personality, talents, interests, and potential college major.  Participate in things that are rewarding.  Hang out in places and with people who encourage you to do your best and be a better person.  Don’t worry about what colleges want; there is no magic formula.  Get out there and get involved.  Just do it!


Sending Red Flags for College Admission

This week I was driving with my two kids in the car.  My six-year-old son turns to his big sister out of the blue and says, “I have more points that you could ever have on Disney games!”

This sounded like the start of a fight.  They’ve been home all summer and are beginning to get on each other’s nerves.  But before I launched into another lecture, I asked, “Why did you say that to your sister?  It sounded like you wanted to make her feel bad.”

He was surprised, “No, I want Margaret to be proud of me.  She doesn’t even play the Disney Junior games on the computer.”  A simple misunderstanding.

This type of communication error was exactly what I explained to some students earlier in the week– it’s not only what you say, but also how you choose to say it.  In my son’s case, he thought his eleven year old sister would be impressed with his accomplishments, not knowing that the way he said it came across as hostile.  Many students have the same problem in clearly expressing their achievements to colleges and universities.

Whether in an admissions essay, interview, email, or casual encounter with an admissions officer, too many students don’t think and send out red flags with their words.  Here are just a few examples:

“I didn’t make good grades in middle school, but I’ve been an honor student every year in high school.”  Colleges won’t have middle school grades.  Why undermine the achievement by starting with a negative fact that isn’t relevant?

“I only advanced to the quarter-finals.”  This came from a student describing his experience at a national speech and debate tournament.  ONLY!  “Only” the quarter-finals at a highly competitive event is a BIG deal.  Don’t let disappointment or a fear of appearing immodest lead you to phrase accomplishments as if they are setbacks.

“I am president of the Spanish Club, but we don’t do much.”  A former student revealed this in a mock interview.  The interviewer was looking to start conversation by saying, “I see on your resume you are president of the Spanish Club.  What do you do?”  Not only is this a lesson in “think before you speak,” but it also underscores the importance of knowing the value of everything listed on your resume.

“This year I am president of NHS at my school.  It was an honor to be elected, but some of the people are difficult to work with.”  As part of a greater essay that would explain the challenges of leadership and how this student was able to overcome them, this statement might be acceptable.  However, on its own, it unnecessarily raises questions.  Is this student unable to work with others?  Lacking in leadership skills?  Is there more to the story?

Every applicant has control of the information given to colleges during the admissions process.  Avoid sending red flags for college admission or unnecessarily drawing attention to negatives while in the process of presenting positives.



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College Admission: Can We Beat The System?


My son is applying to a bunch of state schools in Texas, but Texas A&M is his top choice. He is not in the top 10%, so won’t be automatically admitted.   He wants to apply to engineering, but it is so competitive at A&M. Would he be better off listing his first choice major in engineering and his second choice in another less-competitive field?  (We were thinking agriculture.)


This is a popular question. Essentially it boils down to whether or not students who are applying to a competitive school can game the system by choosing a particular major. In other words, this parent is asking if it would it be easier for her son to get into A&M if he chose a major other than engineering.  Would it increase his odds?

First, a word of caution, at some schools it’s very difficult to change majors. There are some universities where it is almost impossible to transfer into a popular major if you are not initially admitted into that program.  Some students trying to find ways around competitive admissions standards find themselves stuck in a program they don’t like.

One example…I was touring North Carolina State University two years ago. One of their most competitive programs is Elementary Education. At the time they were admitting 60 students per year and the only way you could transfer into Elementary Education was if one of those 60 people left.

Be very careful in applying to things that aren’t really your intention with the idea of being able to increase your odds for admission.

Second, schools are going to look at a student’s first choice of major and if that student doesn’t qualify, they will offer another department before rejecting the student.  Going back to the question, if the son doesn’t qualify for engineering at A&M but A&M would have him in another department, they will make an offer of admission.  In other words, the school will say, “We don’t have a place for you in engineering but we do have a place for you at the university in general.”

For years I’ve heard rumors generated by students looking for short-cuts. Some of them are just laughable. When I worked as a school counselor I heard students strategizing about how they would get past their lower class ranks and gain admission to the University of Texas.  One said,  “Man, you’ve got to apply to UT as a nursing student. They don’t get a lot of applications from guys in nursing. You’ll be in.”   I didn’t want to interrupt their conversation as I was eavesdropping, but the school of nursing at the University of Texas is pretty competitive. True, they do get more women applying, but they still get a number of very well qualified, very interested, young men. That strategy was not going to work!

Most often when you hear the latest way to get around challenging admissions standards, it isn’t true.  If you are torn between different majors and aren’t sure what to list on your application, give the university an honest answer based on your top choices at the time.  If the student from this question is honestly interested in both engineering and agriculture, it would be fine to list engineering first and agriculture second.  When in doubt, you can always call the admissions office and speak to a counselor.

As my grandfather always told us, “When you tell one lie, you have to tell 100 more to keep covering it up.”  Don’t play games with your college applications.  Answer honestly.


Do you have any questions about admission rumors you’ve heard?  Want to share some of the crazy strategies people are discussing in your area?  Leave a comment below.