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Facts and Myths about Preparing for College

Preparing for college is a project that many high school students, along with their families, find challenging, if not bewildering. What classes should I take to maximize my chances of getting into a college of choice? What extracurricular activities and community service will best strengthen my college application? Should I take the ACT or SAT? Should I take both of these tests? Should I attend a large university or a small liberal arts college? How many colleges should I visit during my junior year? Should I ask a teacher to write a personal recommendation for me? Can my family afford to pay for my college education?

These are all reasonable questions, and sometimes the answers to them are complex.  I do find, though, when I speak with students and their families, that the following five mistaken beliefs are quite common:

Myth #1.  Only a top-tier college will allow me to get a good education and succeed in life.  The fact is that there are many colleges, some of which are not so highly ranked, where you can get an excellent education and receive preparation for the next successful step in you life.  You don’t need to graduate from a “Top 20 Newsweek-rated College” to qualify for a good graduate school program, get a good job, or connect with influential people.  

Here on the West Coast, Stanford is a highly ranked school, offers great educational opportunities, and deserves its reputation.  A few miles to the south of Stanford is the University of California at Santa Cruz, which you won’t find listed in any ranking of top schools.  Yet, you can get an education at UC Santa Cruz that is as excellent as the education offered by more prestigious schools, Stanford included.

If you keep an open mind, as you learn about colleges you might attend, you’ll find that many of them will meet your educational and personal goals.  Take with a grain of salt what others tell you about  ”good” and “not so good” schools.  Some highly publicized rankings of colleges, such as you find in U.S. News and World Report, are unreliable guides to college excellence.  Far more important is the “fit” between you and the school you choose to attend. .  Also more important, in determining the likelihood of your success in college, is your own motivation to learn, and the skills and understanding that you have gained during your high school years.  

Myth #2.  I can wait until late in my junior year or even my senior year to start thinking seriously about admission to college.  In high school, your most important responsibility is of course to the education you’re receiving.  Apply the mantra “Be here now” to your studies and learn, learn, learn.  But already during your freshman and sophomore years, you can reflect on your interests and talents and what kinds of colleges might work best for you.  During your junior year, you can visit  campuses and judge whether or not they will meet your needs.

An important part of your preparation for admission to a 4-year college will be taking the PSAT or PLAN tests, and then the SAT or ACT.  You may be able to improve your score on the SAT or ACT by taking the test several times.  These standardized tests are not above criticism; they do not accurately measure what a person has learned or has the potential to learn.  Still, your preparation to take the SAT or ACT can contribute very positively to your education. After all, the skills that you sharpen in order to do well on the these tests are skills that will serve you well in high school and of course in college too.

Myth #3.  My list of extracurricular activities and community services will get me into the college of my choice.  One hazard here is that you will spread yourself thin.  What a college wants to see is not the quantity but the quality of your activities.  In one or two of them, do you show real passion, commitment, even leadership?   That will serve you better than a laundry list of hobbies or volunteer positions you’ve taken.  Let your real interests and values guide your choices about what you do outside of school.  Activities that are chosen in this way — artistic or athletic endeavors, debate club or science club,  volunteering at a hospital or recycling center, to give just a few examples — are most likely to show you at your best when you compose your college application.

A sports activity, even if you are a pretty strong player, is unlikely to be a “hook” that gets you into college.  Your success in athletics won’t compensate for a poor academic record or an inadequate SAT or ACT score. There are very good reasons for taking up a sport, but getting into college is rarely one of them.  In addition, if you devote many hours, on- and off-season, to a sport, your academic work and the rest of your life may suffer from neglect.  And that neglect may make it less likely that you’ll get into the college or colleges of your choice.

Myth #4.  The essay and personal statement I write for a college application won’t help me much to gain admission.  On the contrary, many colleges, especially the most selective ones, are likely to take seriously this part of your application.  Your writing indicates, first of all, your ability to think and express yourself clearly.  It also provides information about you that fills out the picture given by your grades, test scores, and other qualifications.  Your essay/personal statement can place your high school record in the wider context of your life to date, including the personal opportunities and obstacles you have encountered.   In brief, your writing can convey to an admissions officer a sense of the unique person you are.

Myth #5.  Forget private schools — they’re way too expensive.   It’s true that Ivy League Schools can cost $60,000 a year or even more.  At Stanford, too, you can expect your expenses to be about $60,000.  However, many private colleges have wealthy endowments and are committed to giving strong financial support to their students.  The average private college student lowers his or her expenses by nearly 40%, thanks to grants and scholarships.  At Stanford, for example,about half of the undergraduates receive financial aid, and the average reward is about $40,000.

This means that, if your application to a college is a strong one, there’s a good chance that you will receive financial aid and can graduate with little or no student debt.  You may even find that attending an “expensive” college costs you less than going to a state school.

- Raymond Barglow


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