For lots of families of high school juniors and sophomores, this whole college admissions process has just kicked into gear. So, this seems like a good time to talk about the typical mistakes students and parents make as they get started.
In my experience, students often underestimate their chances, thinking that colleges don't really look at anything besides grades and test scores. They assume they don't have a chance at schools where they could in fact be competitive. On the flip side are parents who have seen how hard their child has worked and how much he or she has contributed the high school or community and can't imagine that top-tier schools like Stanford could possibly say "no" to their prodigy student. Of course, reality is often somewhere in the middle.
If you've ever done a campus visit, one thing you've probably heard is that each college evaluates its applicants "holistically." That means the decisions are based on more than just stats (grades and test scores). Most colleges, and particularly the privates, are interested in understanding who each applicant is and what makes them tick, and finding out how they'll contribute to life on campus.
Don't assume you won't be accepted because your test scores aren't strong enough. Every year I have an interesting student or two whose test scores and perhaps even their grades don't match up with the "average" student profile at a college. But they choose to do their research on the college or university, put together an impressive application that details their accomplishments, get great letters of recommendation and write a strong essay. And every year, a few of those students are wowed by their offers of acceptance.
Parents are often unaware and assume that their stellar student will be welcomed with open arms everywhere because the student performed so much better than they did in high school. It's tougher out there now, no question. At the most elite schools, they are rejecting valedictorians with perfect test scores if they didn't spend their time doing anything else. There are a lot of those types of students. Colleges are looking to "build a class." They are seeking interesting individuals who will add to the richness of the college community and have an impact. What students have done in high school is the best indicator of what they'll do in college. So the student who studied nonstop and did nothing else is not looked upon as favorably.
Falling prey to unworthy influencers
Whether it's your niece's boyfriend's brother who "loved" a school or your next-door neighbor who transferred because she was miserable, they aren't you.
That's all the more reason students need to conduct their own research, check out course catalogs, read student reviews, watch videos, take virtual tours, etc. I am not a fan of rankings either. So if a school is ranked No. 4 in the country for biomedical engineering, and you go but you're not able to perform at the top of the class, you're likely to have fewer job opportunities than someone who chose a "lower-ranked" school and performed well.
Don't listen to the cocktail party conversations either. After families have gone through the process once, many think they're now experts and are delighted to share their wisdom. Don't listen! The chatter you were accustomed to hearing when you used to sit in the stands at high school games is typically not worth much. I've received calls this spring from families saying they've heard that all schools are now test-optional, so no one needs to take the SATs or the ACTs. Not true.
Keep perspective when talking to people about colleges. Don't overshare about your own plans either.
Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.