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Busting College Application Myths

Busting College Application Myths

By Mir Kamin

Everybody panic! No, no. Just kidding. No need to panic. Seriously. But good lord, is someone profiting off of the either real or implied hysteria that seems to be setting in for seniors all across the country? Because it feels like we hit September and suddenly everything was not only screaming “COLLEGE!” at our kids, but also insisting that they were late, get moving, make all the decisions and take all the tests and figure out your life this very second!

It’s nuts. I mean it. Can you imagine the absurdity—absent the context of a school choice—of telling a child they have to decide the course of the rest of their lives within just a few short months? Stop the insanity, people. I’ve decided to be a pal and put together a little College Application Mythbuster for you. Bear in mind that this is intended for teens who’ve already decided they want to attend college; don’t even get me started on the whole assumption-of-college thing (because obviously it’s not for everyone). Anyway, here goes:

MYTH: You have to figure out what you want to do with your life before figuring out the right college.
FACT: It’s fine if you have no idea what you want to study, just yet. If you’re unsure of your desired career, pick a school with lots of options. You are making a choice for right now, not forever.

MYTH: You have to go to the very best college you can get into in order to be successful.
FACT: “Very best” is always going to be subjective, first of all. Second of all, you can be successful anywhere you choose to work hard. I am a firm believer that it’s not only possible to get a great education anywhere you’re willing to put in the time and effort, I also think it’s often better to be a standout fish in a regular pond rather than a supposedly exceptional fish in a super-special pond of similarly exceptional fish.

MYTH: Going into debt to attend your dream school is totally worth it.
FACT: I’ll fully admit that I approach this from a position of extreme debt-aversion… but… if you’re down to a choice between Dream School Debt and Full Ride Or Much More Affordable Adequate School, I think you know where I fall on this one. College is expensive. Launching into adulthood post-college is terrifying under the best of circumstances; wouldn’t you rather leave debt out of the equation if at all possible? See above: go be a standout fish without debt. Trust me.

MYTH: There’s no scholarships available for someone like me or finding/applying for scholarships is too time-consuming.
FACT: There is money available for everyone. Everyone. When I was a kid (“Back in my day…”) you had to spend hours at the library or working with college counselors to find this stuff, but with the advent of the Internet, there’s really no excuse not to find every dollar for which you’re eligible. Many available scholarships for weird niches aren’t all that large, but they add up!

MYTH: You should apply to one “reach” school, two or three “within reach” options, and one “safety” school.
FACT: This isn’t a bad approach if you’re unsure where you want to go or kind of have your heart set on a school to which you don’t feel confident you’ll actually be admitted, but to hold it up as the gold standard of “How To Apply To College” is silly, to me. Applying to colleges costs money. Getting your heart set on a school you have an excellent chance of being refused by suggests to me an out-of-whack approach to picking a school. And if you do have a strong sense of your absolute-first-choice-no-matter-what school by now? Apply Early Action, and if you get in, you’re done. [Pro tip: Have you heard of the Freshman Index? Here’s an explanation about how it’s calculated. If you’re trying to figure out your chances for a particular school, look up their FI and their acceptance rates to get a better idea.]

MYTH: Visiting colleges before you apply is essential or visiting colleges before you apply is a waste of time.
FACT: I think this varies from person to person, and parents, this is where we step in, gauge our children’s needs, and do a little guidance. If your kid is highly adaptable and cares more about a school’s stats than the physical environment, maybe you don’t need to do campus visits ahead of time. Maybe you don’t need to do campus visits… ever. (Plenty of folks in my generation and earlier never set foot at their chosen college until move-in day. Most of us lived.) Students who are slower to adapt, struggling with decisions, and worried as much or more about living environment as the educational experience will need those visits.

MYTH: Everyone should go away to college or everyone should start at a community college and live at home.
FACT: Again, I’m very wary of the “everyone”s and “should”s. Some kids should start college from the comfort of home. Some kids really need and will benefit from going away. This is very individual and each family has to work out the answer for themselves. Don’t be swayed by what everyone else is doing; go the route that makes sense for your situation.

MYTH: College essays need to make you sound exceptional.
FACT: College essays need to make you sound like an interesting and introspective human being. That’s a very wordy way of saying: be yourself. Be real. Does it help if you’re passionate about helping others or a longtime community activist? Of course, but if you’re not, don’t pretend. Chances are excellent that you’re passionate about something, and that you bring something to the table which no one else does, so be honest. You want them to admit you, not some fantasy version of you.

MYTH: This is the biggest decision of your life thus far and you have to get it right.
FACT: This is one decision in a lifetime of decisions, and it’s not a life sentence. Make the best decision you can with the information and tools you have right now. It’ll probably work out fine, and if it doesn’t, you’ll make a change. Lots of people switch majors. Lots of people transfer to a different school. Lots of people major in one thing and end up doing another. There are no end-of-the-road decisions here. There is no wrong decision, only the right “right now” decision. Breathe.

To all my fellow parents of high school seniors: You breathe, too. We’re all going to make it through this just fine.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • […] application rules” stuff is… nonsense, or at the very least, not one-size-fits-all. Over at Alpha Mom I’m busting the most common myths, because no one should have to freak out over what should be a manageable—and even […]

  • Dallas

    September 15, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    As someone who came out of college with a $55k student loan debt, I say: NO DEBT EVER. If I could go back and choose a different school, I would in a heartbeat. 

  • Sheryl

    September 15, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    Is there a site or two you can recommend for looking for scholarships?

    • Mir Kamin

      September 15, 2015 at 5:14 pm

      Sheryl, let me check with my senior and get back to you (I’ve nagged but done a good job of not taking over, at least). I know she uses an app she likes. I’ll let you know.

    • Jessica

      September 15, 2015 at 5:58 pm

      The place we always recommend to our students is, mainly because it won’t spam you with stuff just for signing up. Bonus: it has a lot of odd scholarships that you wouldn’t necessarily think about looking for (ones based on parent employment or affiliation, ones for how tall or short you are, ones for just writing a tweet, and so on). I used to create a scholarship newsletter for my job, and I often looked there to find ones that would be interesting for our particular grad class each month.

  • Mandie

    September 15, 2015 at 5:08 pm


    As a parent of a senior, I feel your pain!  This is my second circus as the older son is now in his sophomore year at university.  However, the whole “every kid is different” thing really applies.  

    I’m taking nagging to a true art form 🙂

  • Melinda

    September 15, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    I agree with Dallas. Starting off with tens of thousands in debt is HORRIBLE. Go where you can afford.

    I graduated from fancy-expensive school at the top of my class, with honours, phi beta kappa, etc. I haven’t found a full-time permanent position since then- four years ago. Honestly, I should have spent more time socializing (ahem, networking) at a bigger, cheaper school and less time studying my butt off.

    Only the networking people I know from school have good jobs now.

  • Jessica

    September 15, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    This is excellent advice!

    The only thing I might quibble about is the choice to visit or not, and that’s just based on my job in a college counseling office and seeing what has been happening in college admissions lately.

    These days, many colleges have started to base decisions around how much interest a student has shown in their particular school. They often give students who’ve visited higher marks, because they have taken a step to show their interest. Other ways to show interest include touching base with your admissions counselor or meeting up with one at a college fair. Some include making sure you’re on their email list as part of your interest shown, but because they have shown a correlation between visiting and completing an application, this one tends to get a lot of attention during review time. (Again, not all colleges do this, so it’s a “know your college” kind of thing. Some colleges couldn’t care less if you visit and some believe it’s a high priority to have shown such a vested interest in their school.)

    College admissions has changed a lot in just the past eight years and has become pretty hard-boiled, sadly. A lot of parents remember how it used to be (I even fell into the “but when I went to college…” thing, and I was there just a little over 10 years ago as a traditional student), but it’s really changed quite a bit, particularly since 2008 when more people started applying than ever before.

    The advice we always give our students is generally as follows: If you know your college doesn’t track that kind of thing, you’re probably good to go either way, whichever you choose. If you have a chance to visit, go ahead and try to, because a lot of students get a gut feeling about a place after visiting. If it’s not possible, make sure to show your interest in some way before you complete the application. 

  • Brigitte

    September 15, 2015 at 8:46 pm

    Love the advice, especially the essay one; the thought has freaked me out since it wasn’t expected “back in my day.”  Admittedly, I’m thinking about it 5-6 years too early . . 

  • Meri

    September 15, 2015 at 11:41 pm

    the advice I was given for student loans many years ago was that they shouldn’t be more than your expected salary after graduation. That doesn’t work so well if you get laid off in a recession and lose your high-paying job.

  • IrishCream

    September 16, 2015 at 10:11 am

    One more to add…the most expensive schools on paper are often the most affordable. I work for an Ivy, and some people have told me that they’re not encouraging their kids to apply because it’s too expensive. My school and several others in our tier have policies that meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need–WITHOUT LOANS. And if your family’s income is under a certain threshold ($50,000-$70,000, typically), the expected parental contribution is $0. That’s right, zero dollars.

    Obviously it’s very tough to get in, but if your child is interested and might be competitive, don’t let the sticker price scare you off.

  • Arnebya

    September 16, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    GAH to the debt. I wish I’d had someone, anyone, a parent, say, or even a school counselor to tell me about available scholarships. I will be paying Sallie Mae until I’m dead and partially buried (at the burial, SM reps will likely have paperwork deeming the need for my left foot). I do not want this for my children. Keep your feet, I’ll tell them. Wait . . .

  • Alice

    September 18, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    This is great advice!

    I’ll add in one thing around community colleges – they can be a truly fabulous option, but it really pays to do a fair bit of research ahead of time *if you know you’re going to want to transfer to a 4-year school.* You’ll want to make sure that your CC has a good arrangement in place with a 4-year school that you like, and that credits in your field will transfer. 

    Florida has gone through some preposterous changes in the last few years, and many of them have made it trickier for people who went to CC to transfer over to state schools. It’s still totally do-able, but it requires a bit more planning. (Or more time and tuition, which isn’t what most people want to avoid.)