Prep Talk Blog > August 2010

I get easily frustrated with people who force complex interpretations of everything. This is particularly true at certain universities, where professors appear to worship complexity.  As much as I appreciate a really substantive cerebral experience, I also realize that Piranha 3D doesn’t have an elaborate subtext to illustrate the perils of the socio-industrial complex’s influence on the global environment.  It’s about a bunch of really mean fish that eat really attractive people, purely for audience entertainment purposes.

One of the reasons I started writing about college admissions is that at times it seems everyone who writes on the topic has an attitude consistent with those colleges that seem to pride themselves on their disconnect from the “real world.”  So-called college admissions experts appear determined to make the topic seem complex, defying understanding by anyone without decades of experience in the field. This leads to the obvious conclusion that an applicant needs enormous expertise to have any chance of success.

I disagree.

Those efforts to make the relatively simple obscure have led to the 3 Great Myths of College Admissions:

  1. College admissions are fair
  2. College admissions are predictable  
  3. College admissions are complicated

In reality, college admissions decisions often give unfair advantages, are unpredictable to the point of often appearing random and are based on a system that is simple to the point of absurdity.

The biggest myth of all, however, is that there is a SECRET to college admissions. People believe there is some special trick, gimmick, or shtick, which, if only they had knowledge of, would all but guarantee their admission to some particular college or university.


These bogus stunts often include some special college essay topic or some special club you can join, or -- worst of all -- some company that charges a fortune for claims of inside advantages. There’s never any evidence that any of that works, other than that story about somebody who got in at some point by writing that essay, joining that club, or forking over that fortune.

The reality, unfortunately, is really boring. Here it is -- you might want to sit down for this:

College Admissions Is (Nearly, Mostly, Almost Completely) All About Your Grades

Better grades are the BEST way to increase your chances of admission to your college of choice.  That’s really about it -- except that when I say “grades,” I really mean your whole academic record: the high school you attend, the quality/rigor of your courses, the trends of your grades (up, of course, is better), and the comparison of you to other students and applicants from your school.  All of that is factored, to one degree or another, by college admissions officers to get an idea of what kind of student you are and likely will be in college. That simple, clear-cut, transparent evaluation accounts for the VAST majority of an admissions decision.

I’ll get into more detail about how all of those issues factor into academic records in the college admissions process in some future posts, but in the meantime, here is a really simple piece of advice that is sure to help you in any admission process: Get good grades.  Also, when you go swimming, watch out for the piranha, especially if you’re particularly attractive.

Be seeing you.

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College Admissions Deadlines, Reckless Drivers and Fire AntsThe New York Times recently ran an article about high school students anxiously waiting by their computers for the Common Application to go live so they could immediately submit their college applications and have their submissions be THE FIRST to be received by their universities of choice. Yikes!

I'm sure these are probably the same people who would gun their engines on the highway to get in front of me and then immediately slow to a snail's pace afterwards.  In my perfect world, every driver would have a special apparatus with the ability to launch a platoon of fire ants directly into the car of such individuals.  No, wait.  First you would shoot honey at them, and then the ants. I digress, but I think you get the idea.

So I started thinking, maybe the people who send in their applications in the middle of summer have the same idea (about getting in front of other cars, not about fire ants).  Possibly, they imagine their applications mercilessly cutting right in front of other applicants.  Perhaps they picture the application entering into the admissions office with appropriate fanfare: Trumpets heralding the arrival of the first application as choirs sing their praises and skyrockets explode triumphantly overhead. Or not.  

In reality, few offices actually check the dates on the applications as long as they meet the deadlines.  Applying by early admission and (the evil, awful) early decision deadlines may give the applicant some advantages in the decision process, but it's unlikely that being much earlier has any influence.

There are, perhaps, some college admissions officers and/or committees who carefully check the arrival date of each application, but that date is usually an overall COMPLETION date (the date when everything needed for your application is received).  In fact, many high schools will send transcripts out in batches, often well after these obsessive summer submitters post their applications. As a result, there's a good chance that the college admissions committee will have no idea who submitted the first application.

The moral of the story is that you can take all the time you want to turn in your applications.  That is, until the deadline for the college or university of your choice -- then you'd better hurry up and get your application submitted.  

So relax, and go back to squeezing the last juice out of your summer while you obsessively visit colleges, explore college websites, stress out about your senior year, and recklessly pull in front of traffic and then slow down -- we'll have your fire ants waiting.  

Be seeing you. 

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Faith, the Internet and College AdmissionsBREAKING NEWS: The Internet is not always entirely correct.

Shocking, I know.  What’s more startling is that many of the websites you rely on to get your information on college admissions are actually not all that reliable. In fact, I had a student (who I dearly hope will enroll at Mason next year) confess that she relies on one of these sites as her "college admissions bible” -- holy inappropriate religious reference!

As a disclaimer, if you aren't just on a quest for random numbers and genuinely want some good information, there are some decent sites out there.  I'm particularly partial to MyCollegeOptions, which you are on right now. I do think they have solid information and their free college matching is more than a few steps ahead of most of its competitors.

Here are some of the many reasons why it's a bad idea to rely entirely on some of the other college advice websites:

Many of these sites are trying to sell their own products (usually college loans) and care much more about the sale than about presenting accurate information.

These sites will post just about anything to get you to their homepages where they can inundate you with their own advertisements for the best student loan ever or the most gimmicky product on the planet.  

HINT: If the first few pages keep redirecting you to loan offers, that's a bad sign.

Many of these college websites are only trying to make money -- period.

Here's how it works: The people who build the website focus on featuring the most popular schools so their link pops up on your Google search.  However, when you enter the site, you also see attractive features on schools you’ve never heard of (often for-profit schools). Don't be fooled. Such websites earn a lot of money in exchange for presenting these schools to you (whether they are quality institutions or not).  

HINT: If you can't get to any information without being bombarded by ads first for some totally irrelevant service or school, that's a really bad sign.

Those websites that do care about accurate information and don't manipulate the data are still often posting misinformed and dated information. 

Now keep in mind that the websites might not be entirely to blame for this one. Colleges and universities are notorious for providing very little useful information that would tell them apart from one another. As a result, these websites try to fill in the gaps caused by a persistent lack of transparency.  

HINT: If a website praises a campus as, "really modern; indoor plumbing newly installed," that's a truly and spectacularly bad sign.

On the other hand, I totally get why so many of you in the college search process worship these sites.  Face it, we all love and crave ratings, scores, and lists of any kind, regardless of accuracy.

This obsession starts at an early age. For example, my 8-year-old son insists I score him each time he jumps in the pool.  He does not, however, appear to care a bit about the scale on which he is scored, only that his score increases each time. His last jump received a score of 365,492.  It was an awesome jump.

I hope your summer is going well.  Whether you're surfing the information super highway or just jumping into the pool, I hope you receive ratings of biblical proportions.

Be seeing you.

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Ah, the U.S. News & World Report college rankings -- the mother of all such lists. This past Tuesday welcomed the release of the publication’s “Best Colleges 2011.” Below you can learn more about the top 10 or so from each of the major national categories.

11 Best National Universities

Why 11 you ask? Due to some ties in what would normally be the top 10, we are sharing the top 11 to accommodate for those universities that have been equally recognized for their excellence. U.S. News describes schools in this category as those that “offer a full range of undergraduate majors, master’s, and doctoral degrees. These colleges are also committed to producing groundbreaking research.” Here they are in descending order:

10 Best Liberal Arts Colleges

U.S. News categorizes liberal arts colleges as those institutions that “emphasize undergraduate education and award at least half of their degrees in the liberal arts fields of study.” Here are the top 10 in descending order:

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When looking through college brochures, it’s hard to determine what it would be like to live at the school for the next four years. Luckily, the Princeton Review’s college rankings includes a section on top schools by quality of life (free login required to read). Here are the number-one schools based on each classification with links for more information:

Best Quality of Life: Rice University 

Happiest Students: Brown University

Least Happy Students: Fisk University 

Best Campus Food: Bowdoin College

Is It Food?: United States Merchant Marine Academy

Dorms Like Palaces: Bryn Mawr College 

Dorms Like Dungeons: Tuskegee University 

Most Beautiful Campus: Sewanee - University of the South

Least Beautiful Campus: New Jersey Institute of Technology

Easiest Campus to Get Around: Susquehanna University 

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Do you think it's fair if college admissions professionals "google" you or look at your Facebook profile during the admissions process?
Yes. If it's out there, it's fair game.
No. If it's not part of my official application package, it shouldn't be considered.
I don't know.
The poll is closed.


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Don Munce