American colleges offer a rich variety of opportunities, with diverse climates and numerous programs of study. You can major in anthrozoology (the study of human-animal interactions) at Earlham College in Indiana or air traffic management at Southern New Hampshire University. There’s truly something for everyone!
But before you start filling out applications, let’s examine some of the rumors you may have heard about US College Admissions.
1. Universities are incredibly hard to get into.
It’s true that there are over 100 schools that are quite competitive. However, that still leaves nearly 2,000 others that are much less selective. There is no reason for students to worry that “I won’t get into college.” As long as students are careful to create a college list covering a range of admissions chances – including so-called “reach,” “target,” and “safety” schools – they will generally end up with some good options.
2. Only the top-ranked colleges are worth applying to.
Rankings are complicated and controversial; even some of the college presidents and administrators at highly-ranked schools don’t particularly like the system. There are many superb academic institutions you may not have heard of yet. It’s worth taking the time to research schools that will be the best match for your interests and priorities, not just the ones everyone is talking about.
3. Getting a near-perfect SAT or ACT score is the key.
Over 1,000 U.S. colleges are test-optional, meaning you don’t have to submit test scores at all. (However, these schools may still require scores for certain groups such as athletes, homeschoolers or nursing or international applicants.) Even the colleges that do require scores don’t always place a high emphasis on them. Generally, coursework and grades matter more.
4. It’s important for students to do a lot of activities, such as music, sports, and hobbies.
While universities often seek a well-rounded student body, that doesn’t mean each individual student must be well rounded. In fact, a student who excels in one thing is likely to be more desirable to an admissions committee than a student who dabbles in many activities.
Paid work, childcare responsibilities, and other activities and accomplishments can be just as appealing as sports prowess in some cases.
5. Students should know their major before they apply – and if they don’t know what they want to study, they should pick a big school that has every possible major.
It’s very common for students to be undecided about their field of study; in fact, the number one major for freshmen at some universities is “undeclared.” While it’s true that larger schools have a longer list of majors to choose from, small schools often have some unusual offerings not widely available elsewhere. In addition, small colleges often provide extensive academic advising to help students choose a field of study. Some students who attend large universities get very little guidance at all.
6. Private colleges are the most expensive choice.
At first glance, this appears to be true – and on average, it is true. However, don’t rule out private schools too quickly. Public university tuition for non-resident (out of state) or international students can be surprisingly steep.
A strong applicant applying to a private college with a large endowment may qualify for generous aid that actually makes it less expensive than a state school.
7. Wealthy families have to pay full price.
While colleges like to boast about student diversity, they also want to attract a fair number of wealthy applicants who might later become generous alumni donors. In order to attract these students, schools often provide financial incentives in the form of “merit aid” to qualified applicants. So even families that earn too much to qualify for need-based financial aid may still receive generous non-need-based aid if the student is a strong candidate.
8. When you get a financial aid offer, what you see is what you get.
This is one of the most common mistakes families make: they assume that the financial aid letter is the final word. In fact, it’s an offer to help persuade the student to attend. Just like a buyer makes an offer on a car or a house, it may be negotiable. You never know until you ask.
9. Once you click “submit” on your application, there’s nothing to do but sit back and wait.
If you’ve submitted your application and you have updated information – your latest term’s grades, a new test score, or an award or accomplishment of some kind – by all means pass that information along to the schools on your list. In addition, many schools keep track of students’ demonstrated interest – that is, how serious a student appears to be about attending a given college. With these institutions, there are many ways for you to show your commitment, such as taking advantage of an optional interview or making a second visit.
10. If a school is hard to get into, it must be really good.
In recent years, colleges have been publicizing how low their acceptance rate is (e.g., “only 10% of applicants were admitted”). But this figure is only one piece of information, and it certainly doesn’t tell you if the school is the best choice for you. Colleges advertise heavily, actively seeking to get more students to apply every year, which drives the acceptance rate down. A falling rate doesn’t mean the college is getting better; it’s just getting better at enticing more students to apply. The important thing is that there are many excellent options for most students.
11. If you have no college offers by April 1, you’re out of luck.
If you are put on a waiting list, by all means, let the institution know that you are still interested in attending. Some students may receive multiple offers from schools and will have to turn down all but one of them when they make their final selection, freeing up additional spots. Schools will then make a second round of offers, and you might be one of the lucky recipients. Even if it’s May or June of your senior year, there are still several steps you can take to get admitted. There are some colleges that have “rolling admissions,” continuing to accept new applications in the spring and summer until all of their spots are filled. They might not be your first choice, but some may be perfectly good schools that would welcome you to attend.
12. Scholarships are only for students with top grades and test scores.
While being a high performer helps, there are lots of awards for other factors such as community service, ethnic or family background – or sometimes even just for applying early. It pays to do a bit of research to find scholarships for which you might be qualified, whether from colleges or independent organizations.