Applying to universities, as you well know if you're in the middle of the process, has likely been one of the most stressful moments in your life thus far. Aside from simply choosing which universities to apply to, you have to assemble your applications without any idea what, precisely, admissions committees are looking for. Especially for the more selective schools, there's no SAT cut-off, there's no average GPA they're looking for. The most you'll get on an admissions website is something about how they're looking for "well-rounded, passionate" students.
Of course, there's millions of websites and books dedicated to figuring out college admissions. I read some of them, and I disregarded their advice. Having gone through the college admissions process fairly successfully (I was admitted to all schools to which I applied, including two Ivy Leagues), I'll tell you what I think they're actually looking for and what they aren't. Here are a few myths that should be debunked:
1. You have to have perfect grades and SAT scores to apply to top schools.
Of course, you do have to have high grades and test scores to be considered competitive in any of the top schools. At the same time, they don't have to be perfect. I know several people who got into prestigious schools with average grades and very high SAT scores, or with average scores and stellar grades. Personally, I did very well in one section of the SAT, bombed the other, and had decent grades, mostly A's.
2. You must have a slew of extra-curricular activities on your resume.
It saddens me when so many students and their parents feel this pressure to partake in extra-curricular activities only for the sake of appearances. And what's worse about doing this is that admissions committees don't care about applicants having a long list of activities! It's becomes pretty obvious when you're participating in several sports or other activities when you actually have no interest in them. Of course, pursue what interests you, but don't just have a trivial commitment to a hundred different things.
3. Sending in something extra with your application will hurt your chances.
Of course, follow application instructions as best as you can. But if you want to throw something in extra, like an award-winning essay or project you worked on that you're proud of, don't hesitate. In one application, I included a satirical newspaper, similar to The Onion that I wrote and handed out in high school, and I got accepted to that school. While it won't necessarily help, it can. And it won't hurt.
4. Your personal essay isn't that important.
I spent quite a bit of time on each of my personal essays, and I made each of them different. While I can't say specifically what admissions committees are looking for, I would guess that they're trying to know you more intimately beyond the numbers. Steer clear of inspirational type essays whose conclusions are cliché and too easy. Many applicants will write about "epiphanies" they had in high school or earlier. The fact of the matter is that epiphanies often don't occur the melodramatic way that we write about them. Be real, and be honest.
5. The only schools worth applying to are those in U.S. News and World Report's top 20.
While this isn't necessary a myth about college admissions itself, I think it's something that all college applicants should realize. Of course, getting into a school like Harvard or Yale would be great. Honestly, however, there are lots of other great schools that may fit your academic interests and lifestyles way better. I've met many people who attended Ivy League schools ( I didn't end up going to an Ivy), and really the only difference is the price tag. You can get the same quality of education at a ton of different schools.
Of course, college applications will be stressful no matter how you look at it. The most important thing to remember is to be honest, and don't try too hard. Let your accomplishments speak for themselves.
About the Author
Nadia Jones is an education blogger for an online education website and a freelance writer on all things academia. Nadia uses the written word to share her knowledge on accredited online college education and the latest news in the educational world. Though Nadia's mind is always preoccupied with topics of education, she spends her downtime volunteering with middle school students and pitching for her adult softball team. She can be reached at nadia.jones5 at gmail dot com.