It’s getting toward mid-April, and that means that the millions of students across the US who have applied to college and have patiently awaited their admission decisions will soon receive their answers. For some, elation awaits; for others, disappointment. At a time like this, it’s important to take a few steps back and look at the big picture of college admissions, if only to maintain sanity and perspective. Let’s look at a few of the most common myths of college applications and acceptance, and dispel them one by one.
Myth 1: There is a Single, Perfect College For Each Student
Each year, many students get wrapped up in the notion of the ideal college or university, becoming obsessed with that one school where their futures will surely blossom and their goals will fall neatly into place. If they are rejected by their “perfect” schools, students can become dejected, even depressed, while they convince themselves that their lives will never turn out to be as good as they would have been had they been admitted to their first-choice institutions.
The good news is that the myth of the perfect school is exactly that––a fantasy we use to inflate notions of certainty and predictability. Provided they have built into their applications a reasonable plan B (or C, or D), most students adapt very well and make their lives work wherever they end up attending. Provided they dive into their academic work, make efforts to engage with their professors, and become contributors to their college/university communities, many students can actually flourish at a variety of schools. Remember that to idealize one place is to fantasize: no single college or university is perfect, but many are great. Students can, and do, mold their higher education experiences themselves.
And by the way: what if a given school doesn’t work out? For a surprising percentage of students––more than one-third of them within six years, in fact––it doesn’t! Transfers are extremely common, and don’t represent the disaster that many students and parents imagine them to be. Would this be the case if a single college were perfect?
Myth 2: Prestige is Key
Countless students dreamily envision receiving acceptance letters from top-notch, big-name schools: Yale, MIT, Stanford, Northwestern, Duke…the list goes on. They may have applied to several schools in the Ivy League or in the top 20 of the U.S. News & World Report college ranking list, firm in the idea that a diploma from a highly recognized college or university will be their ticket to future glory.
In the real world, where you go for your undergraduate education is far less important than what you do while you’re there.
Take this scenario of two economics majors. Student A goes to Princeton and coasts through with a 3.2, prioritizing social life over research and internship opportunities. Student B goes to University of Texas - Austin, earns a 3.7 GPA through rigorous coursework, and for three years collaborates with a professor on research in economics, attending conferences and maybe even scoring authorship on a peer-reviewed paper. Assuming all other things like people and communication skills are equal, when both students apply to graduate school or straight to an employer, Student B has the ticket to acceptance or hire, hands down.
An elite college pedigree can certainly catch people’s attention and make available great connections, but these are not exclusive to highly ranked schools. Students who take the proverbial bull by the horns can make connections and get involved in their fields regardless of the undergraduate institutions in which they enroll.
Myth 3: Students Should Apply Based on Pre-Professional Program X
Each year, I speak with many parents regarding college applications. Invariably, I hear things like “Lauren wants to apply to a good medical program” or “Charlie is applying here because of the great pre-law.” Applying to an undergraduate school for a “great program in X” is an exercise in short-sighted and limited thinking.
With a few exceptions (namely, special and highly-selective 5- to 8-year programs that usher students straight through undergraduate to professional/graduate degrees), students don’t major in “pre-med” or “pre-law”. When students say they are “pre-med”, for example, it means they intend to apply to medical school after college, and in addition to a larger body of coursework required by their majors, are taking classes required by medical schools for admission. If you are a parent or student who has fallen prey to the myth that the undergraduate university/college needs to be laser-focused on achieving the professional degree, read this and repeat it: students can earn admission into medical school, law school, or any other professional/graduate program after majoring in anything at any 4-year accredited college or university, provided they complete the required coursework and admissions exams like the MCAT, LSAT, GRE, or GMAT.
Limiting students’ focus to schools that supposedly have great pre-professional programs is generally unwise for two reasons. The first was outlined above: provided they excel in the required coursework and on the requisite admissions exams, philosophy majors can gain acceptance into medical school; electrical engineers can go to law school; art history majors can go to business school. The second is perhaps even more practical: 17- and 18-year-old students who are only just applying to and enrolling in colleges and universities cannot––and should not––be expected to know what they “want to do with their lives”. If everyone who started college intending to become a doctor or lawyer actually became a doctor or lawyer, we would have such a glut of each that there would be no jobs left to offer them. The simple fact of the matter is that students regularly shift focus while they are in college, changing their majors and life plans in the process. For all but the most laser-focused individuals, assuming that a student will leave college with the same goals as he or she had at the start is folly.
It is far better for students to apply to generally strong schools whose academics will challenge but not overwhelm them, to take courses that build truly valuable skills––writing, communication, presentation, data analysis, and problem solving––and to develop connections and gain experience in their fields of interest. With these behind them, students can achieve great things.
We hope that reading this will alleviate some of the anxiety surrounding the impending college admissions decisions. Remember some advice from acclaimed NY Times columnist Frank Bruni: where you go is not who you’ll be.
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