Busting College Application Myths
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.Published September 15, 2015. Last updated April 9, 2017.