MythBusters of Admissions

As some of you know, Hermiona Education held a phenomenal event recently in Moscow, telling Russian international students the insider details to the American education process. Since I was unable to attend for geographic reasons, I decided to join in on the conversation remotely, via this blog.

Very often I see friends, clients, family members make extremely unwise decisions when compiling their application portfolios. As an educational consultant, and someone who's been through the application process too many times to count at this point, it is inherently obvious which popularized notions with regards to admissions are myths, and which are fact. Let's debunk a few together:

Myth: "I won't get into a good college unless I have a good SAT score."

A lot of students seem to assign a lot of importance (and money and stress) to getting a particular score on the SAT. Truthfully, this one factor can only HELP but not hurt your application to most places.

First of all, if you see yourself just not doing well on the SAT, you do have another option - the ACT. I personally prefer the latter, as it focuses more on straightforward demonstration of knowledge rather than preparedness for particular types of tricks in questions. The ACT is also more logically designed, with each subject area tested in one consecutive chunk of time.

Secondly, more and more schools are realizing that one number from one particular point in time is not indicative of college preparedness or academic potential. Some are listing the SAT as just "recommended", while others do away with the requirement completely. You can find a list of how schools feel about the SAT here.

Myth: "I'm not smart if I don't go to Harvard, MIT, or Princeton."

Unlike some of my colleagues, I decided to not go to a historically brand name school like Princeton or Georgetown. This is a choice that more and more students are making with every year, considering the wide range of higher education institutions available in the United States. Expanding upon my previous blog article, I want to emphasize important questions to consider when picking your school, other than just the relatively meaningless USNews Ranking.

First, if you know what you want to major in or what career you want, in your search you should be looking at the departments themselves. Look up faculty. Look up research opportunities. Look at the courses you'll be expected to take, their syllabi, and grade distributions for those courses. Check out the professors on Talk to the Director of Undergraduate Studies or an advisor, and ask questions. You can inquire about anything from the types of extracurricular professional and social organizations within the department, to statistics of where graduates with the same degree go after graduation.

Second, know what type of learner you are. Do you perceive information best visually? Audially? Kinesthetically? Do you want large lecture halls, or smaller, intimate classrooms? Are you better at self-teaching yourself material and using the teacher for supplemental guidance, or do you want to learn everything from the professor and from your peers? Is it important to you to receive a well-rounded Socratic education, like at the University of Chicago, or do you want maximum independence in selecting your coursework, like at Brown University? A lot of universities pride themselves on a particular teaching style, and it is your responsibility to make sure that it is something you're looking for.

Third, look up other resources available at the university. Is there a career center, to help with editing resumes and finding internships? Does the university host career fairs? Are there mental health resources? Would you be able to play sports, or audition for the orchestra? A core of American education is the idea of extra-curricular learning. Be prepared to learn more outside of class in college, than from your coursework. Otherwise, you're doing college wrong.

Myth: "The most important parts of the application are my grades, scores, honors and achievements."

Actually, any admissions officer will inform you, that while applications are considered holistically, the ultimate decision comes down to the "variable" parts of the application - the personal statement and the letters of reference. Eventually, amongst applicants with relatively decent scores, the admissions committee will still have to make a decision. Truthfully, in the real world, ability to cram for an exam is not the most important skill. Universities look for students that are going to be able to be invaluable members of society. These individuals should have passions, commitment, self-drive. This is something that should be reflected in the writing portions of your application.

When writing the personal statement, many students are compelled to just repeat information already visible elsewhere in the application. They will talk about a particular trophy or honor they received, or a similar "badge" they think will convince the university they're "qualified" enough to be accepted. This attitude of writing what you think the admissions committee wants to hear is exactly the wrong approach. Instead, try focusing on your dreams and goals, showcase your essence as a driven individual on paper. It is your chance to become something more than just a collection of numbers.

When requesting letters of recommendation, do not dismiss this task as insignificant. Asking the right people is incredibly important. Make sure that the teacher has strong writing skills - even if your physics teacher adored you in high school, the letter may still be weaker than one written by someone with stronger written communication abilities. (Not to say that scientists can't write, since I'm a mathematician.) Teachers in big schools often have to write multiple letters, and this is a task that takes time, and is secondary to their main priorities. Give ample time for them to write the letter. 2-3 months should be sufficient, and make sure to remind them consistently throughout the process. For those of you that are not seniors, start developing relationships with your teachers! You will need their letters for summer programs, and eventually college admissions. Important life lesson: relationships matter.

If you thought this article was helpful, feel free to email me with requests for other myths/topics to be expanded upon!

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