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The Biggest Misconception About College Admissions

Sidewalk of Nassau Street in town of Princeton, New Jersey

I get asked questions about college admissions all the time.

Should my child play the piano or the oboe?

I just scored 790 on my SAT 2 Math subject test, should I retake it to get an 800?

Should I perform 100 hours of community service, or 500 hours of community service?

What are my chances to Stanford with a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score?

Should I take AP US History or double up on an AP science my junior year?

While these are all fair questions to ask and I guide my students through every step of the way in my private consulting program, I can tell you that even if you get a 4.0 GPA, 1600 SAT score, perform 500 hours of community service, and play the oboe, you won’t get into Stanford or any other Ivy League if you don’t know how to present yourself in the application, in particular writing thought provoking, compelling personal statements. This is the biggest misconception about college admissions – that with the top scores, grades, national awards, and groundbreaking extracurricular activities that you will ultimately get admitted into the university you’ve worked so hard for.

And if you’re one of the people who do believe that’s what it takes to get in, then you’re in for a rude awakening. Because getting in isn’t just about having a patent under your name or finding some groundbreaking innovation as a high school student. Even if you have the top scores, grades, national awards, and groundbreaking extracurriculars, you can still get rejected from every Ivy League school. I’ve seen this time and time again.

On the contrary, however, I’m not saying you should get low grades and scores, either. But after a certain point and threshold, your chances of getting into a top university highly depends on how well you write the personal statement and package the rest of your application – not on your raw academic and/or extracurricular achievements.

Every family and student I’ve spoken to who approached the college admissions process for the first time is surprised by the amount of sweat and tears that is goes into application season. And those who aren’t prepared early on for this whirlwind are quickly left in the dust and a state of panic, wondering how to approach this most crucial part of the college admissions process that will determine where the student will matriculate for the next four years.

What adds to this level of misconception are all the stories that parents, families, and students hear through the grapevine from their inner social circles. Soon enough, as you can imagine, rumors spread like wildfire and everyone has their own conception of what it really takes to get into a top university. “I heard Eric was accepted to Princeton because he was a semifinalist in the Chemistry Olympiad and Siemens Competition. Mark was accepted to Stanford because he won a gold medal in Tae Kwon Do. Dave got into Harvard because both his parents went there.”

Don’t get me wrong, getting those awards help. If you’re you’ve placed in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair or became state champion in the national debate competition, those awards will help get your application noticed. But that doesn’t mean you’ll get in. In fact, far from it – I’ve had high achieving, high octane prospective clients who reach out to me for help on their transfer application who literally got rejected to all the top schools they applied because they didn’t spend enough time on their application.

I feel for those students – and it’s definitely unfortunate given how hard they worked. I mean, you just spend four years of your life working your tail off and you got dinged everywhere. We can certainly blame the ultra low acceptance rates as a culprit, but the question is did your application or personal statement give you a chance at getting admitted in the first place? How strong of an application did you really put together? If you put together a strong application and it still didn’t work, certainly you can rest in peace that you tried your best and gave it your all. But if you didn’t, then you just shot yourself in the leg.

Personally, I’ve edited and read thousands of essays, in every shape or form. Most of the time I can tell right away when a personal statement has gone awry – that there is a very evident flaw in the essay that would diminish an applicant’s chances of admission. Or other times, the essay was just really mediocre and didn’t really put the student’s strongest foot forward.

While I certainly can’t guarantee everyone into a top university, I can tell you that my students are extremely pleased with the essays that they write. Not only are they satisfied with their personal statements and their completed application, but they are content that they performed to the best of their ability and did everything in their power to get admitted to these highly selective schools. After my students go through my program, there is no regret – we’ve put their best foot forward.

Just browse through College Confidential, a popular college admissions forum, and you’ll see students posting their stats – many with very strong academic and extracurricular profiles, but still getting knocked down in the process. Sure, it’s competitive. Acceptance rates are at all time lows and it will continue to be more competitive every year given the significant increase in applicants and the limited number of spots. The biggest misconception when it comes to college admissions is that you can get in with simply a strong academic and extracurricular profile alone.

What I don’t hear often enough are what are the steps and approaches that one took in their application. What did Eric, Mark or Dave write about in their personal statement? How did they construct a compelling story that demonstrated to the admissions officers their personal qualities that ultimately got them that acceptance letter? And while these are definitely more private and personal information that admitted students often don’t share, these are ultimately the factors that got the student in and separated them from the thousands of other applicants out there.

And I can guarantee you that’s something parents and students who have gotten into these top universities won’t tell you. Because what’s the point – why would they? They simply aren’t incentivized to and prefer to boast about how great their child is rather than sharing about what a great application they put together, perhaps with the help through a private college consultant like myself. Don’t make that mistake and neglect the application.

I highly suggest reading the essays and personal statements of successful candidates that did get accepted to top universities and understand on a more granular level why a particular student was admitted. It’s because the admissions officers can identify with the voice of the essay and understand the student on a much deeper and personal level. And once you get to that point and package together a compelling application, you know you have a strong shot at one of these top universities.

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