1. “A tiny bit of community service on your application is better than none.”
Not necessarily. Admissions officers are experienced readers who want to know about you as a person, not just the names of your activities. If you’ve never taken part in any kind of community service or volunteer work, and then you suddenly sign up to work at a food pantry during the fall of your senior year, admissions officers won’t be too impressed, and may even be turned off. Your community service experience should represent a cause you’re truly passionate about.
2. “I can only get into an Ivy League school if my SAT scores fall in the top one percentile.”
This is perhaps the most common misconception about college admissions. While SAT/ACT scores are obviously important—if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be asked for—they make up just one component of an application. Students often forget this, instead getting hung up on what score they need to be admitted to a specific college. But this is silly, because no school has a specific “required” score. True, a higher score will only help your chances, but a lower score combined with an exceptional essay and shimmering recommendations may be just as good, or even better. In short, test scores get a lot of hype, but they make up only part of the application.
3. “If I don’t get into one of my top schools, my life is over.”
While being rejected or wait-listed at your top-choice school is of course disappointing, your life will not be over afterwards. Students often get hung up on the impressions they developed on college visits or from reading guidebooks, but it’s important to remember what these are: first impressions. Also, much more important than the school’s name or dormitory architecture is your own fit at that school. So, often a school that a student initially considered a backup will turn out to be a perfect fit, and the student will marvel at how lucky he or she was to not get into his or her first choice. In our work with students, the cliché has proven almost universally true: college is what you make of it. If you bring passion and an open mind to a school, it will matter surprisingly little which school it is.
4. “It’s best to get recommendations from famous people, even if they don’t know you well.”
This is false. A recommendation from someone who knows you well and can speak to your strengths—a teacher, a coach, a mentor—will always be more helpful than an impersonal letter from someone who doesn’t know you well but has impressive credentials. Remember, the purpose of a recommendation letter is to provide admissions officers with privileged information about your character and talents. That congressman you shook hands during a summer internship probably won’t be able to provide these unique details; only someone who has worked closely with you over a significant period of time can do this.