So much misinformation about the college admissions process is transmitted through the “you have to do x, y, and z” admonitions of peers, relatives, media outlets, and message boards.

The items on this list tend to cause students and parents undue stress and, in the end, add little-to-no value to the application process. To be clear, we are not advising not to engage in these activities if they hold intrinsic value to you. We are merely saying that none of the following are essential components of a successful college application.

1. National Honors Society

Belonging to your local chapter of NHS can be a wonderful thing. Eligibility requirements vary from school to school but all chapters require an impressive number of service hours, community involvement, academic excellence, and upstanding behavior. So, why does it make our “overrated” list? For one, there are roughly one million NHS members in the United States so it isn’t exactly an exclusive credential that is going to set admissions officers’ hearts aflutter. Secondly, belonging to this group isn’t any more impressive than achieving the prerequisites for admittance independently. In other words, if you are an honor roll student who engages in community service work, that will be just as impressive as doing the same under the auspices of NHS.  

2. Participation in a sport

Very few admissions officers are going to sprint into the dean’s office after reviewing an application to exclaim, “You’ll never believe this… The 3rd string kicker on a high school football team wants to come to our university! And there’s more…he also played volleyball for three months as a sophomore!” This, of course, is to take nothing away from less-gifted athletes who choose to dabble in high school athletics for the love of the game. However, some non-sports enthusiasts feel the need to join teams solely because they feel it will enhance their college application. Unless your athletic endeavors show evidence of talent, commitment, or leadership, they will be of no help to your admission prospects.

3. Alumni recommendations

If the campus library is named after the person who wrote your letter of recommendation, you might be in luck. Otherwise, letters of recommendation from alumni are only as valuable as the academic-related insights they contain.  A generic letter from your father’s bosses’ cousins’ uncle who graduated from Colgate University in 1973 is not going to guarantee your presence on the prestigious Hamilton, New York campus next fall.

4. Summer Programs

Being asked to pony up $13,000 to participate in a summer program at Stanford University inherently seems to suggest that it will offer some type of admissions edge. After all, why else would anyone pay 13 grand for summer camp? Refer to our previous blog on summer programs for the full story on why universities offer these programs as well as the only circumstances in which they might actually prove valuable.

5.  Pay-for-award programs

The most notorious of this group was the now defunct Who’s Who Among American High School Students, a book whose only purchasers, presumably, were the selected students’ proud grandparents. High school students continue to be deluged with offers from various honors societies, fellowships, and leadership organizations. Such nominations typically ask for a membership fee. Unless you are nominated for a genuinely personalized reason (other than being within a certain SAT range) and joining is free, toss these offers out with yesterday’s grocery store circulars.

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.