As professionals in the field of college admissions, our team at College Transitions actively follows developments and trends in higher education on a daily basis. In keeping our ear to the ground, we are also privy to a good deal of misinformation and misassumptions—errors in thinking that we will seek to debunk, one fallacious morsel at a time in our Admissions Mythbusters series. Let’s begin!

Myth #1: An applicant should try to present as “well-rounded” to please admissions committees.

This myth remains pervasive among nervous applicants and their families.  Sadly this misconception usually ends with many applicants entering their admissions interviews dressed in a safari outfit while simultaneously riding a unicycle, playing a didgeridoo, and explaining their design plans for a Super Soaker that combats diabetes.  Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but the bottom line is that well-roundedness is a gravely misunderstood concept.

Colleges are indeed worried about well-roundedness on campus, just not in the way that has been mythologized. In putting together a freshman class, admissions committees are looking for individuals who excel in sports, music, theater, entrepreneurship, volunteer work, foreign language, poetry, debate, etc. However, they aren’t looking for all of these talents to be wrapped-up in one human body. Rather, the core of their institutional desire is for collective well-roundedness to promote a healthy and diverse campus environment. In other words, they want an eclectic and balanced student body, comprised of individuals possessing one or two areas of high aptitude and zeal. There is absolutely no need to engage in activities for the sake of padding your application.  Plus, playing an oversized Australian wind instrument without proper footing is a major safety hazard.

Myth #2: Recommendation letters from influential figures will help my admissions chances.

Local members of congress must employ a secretary whose sole job responsibility is the mass production of generic college letters of recommendation for the children of their influential constituents. Parents with connections often think that such letters from government officials, celebrities, or other notable public figures will give their kids a big edge in the high-stakes battle for admissions at prestigious schools.  In a majority of cases, this simply isn’t true and the insight added by these recommendations is rarely anything other than superficial.

Think about it. Let’s say that a given congresswoman actually met your child once or twice a fundraiser. What insight could they possibly provide that would not be otherwise evident in the admissions portfolio?  “So and so is committed to community service.” Great, an admissions officer could glean that same information in a more genuine, thorough way from a teacher or school guidance counselor who watched your commitment to service grow over a period of years. Same goes for letters from other influential folks your parents might happen to know. What is more likely to persuade a committee to accept an applicant interest in a history major: An enthusiastic letter from David McCullough saying that you have great potential as a historian, or a transcript filled with AP history classes and a beautifully written essay? Common sense tells you the answer.

Myth #3a & 3b: Not getting into an elite college will prevent you from future success/Getting into an elite school will ensure your success.

Research has shown that student ability (as measured by high school GPA and SAT scores) has a higher correlation with future income than the name on their college diploma.  In other words, intelligent people with strong work habits are equally successful whether they complete their undergraduate work at Stanford, Seton Hall, or Salisbury University.  The flip side here is that students who think an acceptance letter to an elite school is their meal ticket for life are quite mistaken.  People in the real world don’t want to hear where you went to school every five minutes; they want to see evidence of your skills and work ethic. In fact, every office in America (including the classic comedy The Office) has a Cornell alum who won’t stop mentioning that they attended an Ivy League school. This is usually met with eye rolls and a reminder that his boss, a SUNY-Binghamton grad, needs those reports on her desk ASAP.

It is also important to remember that if you plan to go into a competitive field like, for instance, the legal profession, the graduate school you attend may end up opening more doors than your undergraduate institution. To this point, any guesses what Rutgers University, the University of Kansas, the University of Oklahoma, Virginia Commonwealth University, Biola University, and York College all have in common? The answer: They all saw one of their former undergraduates enter Harvard Law School in 2018.

Dave Bergman

Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).