When I was in high school, I took a lot of honors and AP classes. Even though my high school was extremely large, we sort of knew the higher achievers since we seemed to travel in a pack. I remember looking around in my AP Calculus class one day and thinking I’ve been in the same math class with most of these kids since the 6th grade. In a high school of over 4,200 students, that is really telling.

So when a kid I knew from around suddenly became part of the AP-crew senior year, I knew something was up. I heard from NYU during Thanks-taking Break so when everyone else was waiting to hear from Berkeley in March, I already knew my dorm, my advisor, and even some of my schedule. During that wait period, the newbie leaned over and asked if I was also waiting to hear from Berkeley.

“I sort of abandoned my application once I heard from NYU,” I explained.

“Well, I’m waiting to hear back,” he said. “But I know I won’t get any money to go. My family makes too much money.”

“How do you know?”

“My family’s financial advisor said so.”

“What’s that? Like a tax guy?”

“No, he does our day trading.”

I just sort of nodded. Thinking back to that moment, sure, if you have a day trader, you probably make too much money to get need-based aid. But the newbie had a lot of other things not in his favor in terms of admissions and merit-based aid and the fact that he didn’t know them is really why I get upset when I hear financial planners giving college advice. For starters, this was his first AP (or honors) course and he wasn’t doing that great in it. His “community” service was limited to his family business, and he never played any sports or participated in extra-curriculars. He wasn’t a bad student, but there were certainly a few triggers for admissions counselors (even then).

I believe he also threw something in there about his minority status, and being from the wrong minority group, as he glanced at a friend who is Mexican and Black. While this is a bit of a digression, it is something I have been dying to say: As people of color, and just people, we really have to cut it out. People assume that all people of color are also needy. Not true. People also assume that all students of color receive need-based aid. Not true. This isn’t even true for the athletes. Even if it were true, the percentage of Black and Brown students in college is so low, that colleges could certainly afford to fund them AND have plenty left over for just about everyone else. We get so caught up in trying to catch crumbs that we lose sight of an entire cake. I was a research assistant for a college access collective at UCLA. One of the researchers (who was also my professor) once said to me, “Theoretically colleges don’t have to have an admissions process. The athletes come in with the worst grades and leave at the same rates as everyone else because they have a lot of support. We could just do that for everyone. And then based on the enrollment, they can hire in the spring; there are certainly enough PhDs out there waiting to be hired. So think about why they don’t.” So let’s stop looking at everyone who is darker or poorer than us as less deserving and think about how to shift the entire system in order for everyone who wants to get some, to get some.

Returning to my list…

One of the things that has always struck me is that almost every college admissions officer has the same nuggets of advice for students. Yet, students and families continue to ignore these pieces of advice and when it’s time to get letters, they are stunned by the results. The errors fall into two camps: not treating the application as three distinct parts and not being strategic. So the following are the top errors that high-achieving students make in college admissions (some of which applies to all students):

1) You take the SAT or ACT three, four, five, six or more times. Some schools are listening to the criticism that test scores don’t say everything or in some cases, much about a student as a student, but they do say a lot about your personality. Remember that when you go to register for that thing for the fourth time. First, your application is saying more about you than you’re good at school. So treat it like that. What do you think it says about you when you are obsessively taking an exam over and over again and only improving ten points or worse, losing points? Second, let’s assume you’ve done some research and are aware of the range of scores the school takes. If you are well within the range, then stop. Third, and I appreciate how this was worded by an admissions counselor so I’ll put it in her words: “We are going to wonder why you didn’t put that effort into something else such as an athletic or club, especially when we know your ability from your GPA already.”

Also remember that most schools now participate in College Choice, meaning the college decides which of your scores it will use, meaning they look at all of your scores to decide. And colleges think that you know that so when you select which schools see which scores, they think you are trying to hide something, which goes back to the issues about character.

Treat the PSAT and PACT as your practice, take a prep course, take the SAT, and at worst take it again. And be done with it. Prep courses can be expensive so contact me for some advice about how they cannot be.

2) You took every AP course available at your school. This gets tricky. For public school students especially, you need to take some. But here is what colleges are saying about AP classes: (1) They are college-like but not college-level; (2) AP courses are not creating high school experts in any topic area; and (3) Students make too many assumptions about what they do know from an AP course that it is causing them to trip up quite a bit when they are in college.

I can explain this best through my own experience. Keep in mind that I have taught in universities (UCLA and Berkeley), introductory and higher level courses. I am currently teaching AP US History in a high school and the breadth is incredible: 1491 to the present with “1491” representing all of the experiences of Norte indigenous groups prior to the invasion. The class is taught to 16 and 17 year-olds who took their last US History course when they were 13 and 14. As a Social Science Education major, I took quite a few US History courses. “US History to 1865” was taught by a professor who was an authority on the American Revolution so that’s pretty much all we did…the entire time. “US History since 1865” was taught by a professor who was an authority on the world wars. So that’s all we did. Both of these were more upper level courses so most of the students were 19 and 20 years old and History majors meaning this was in the loop of many, many other courses. This is similar to my experience as a university instructor. The “what” and “to whom” are so different between high school and college that they really don’t compare. Will a student have an easier time with that same course when in college? Maybe. But what I do know is that by teaching how to think like a historian, and how to be responsible learners, how to take risks in their thinking, and how to organize themselves, they are gaining a much greater impact than the content. (These are some of the foci for Common Core, by the way, but that’s for another day.)

Since the above are the same expectations that the colleges have (and to quote the admissions person from #1), students don’t have to take every AP course especially in lieu of leadership roles, getting good letters of rec, and community service for example. I do have students say they won’t take any because they want an easy senior year or an awesome homecoming. That’s dumb. And I’m not talking about that.

Take different courses, courses that may be completely different from what you think you want to do because you’re too young to really know what you want to do anyway. Consider the challenge to be in the rigor AND in changing the way you look at the world or think about things around you.

(3) Your letters… I once mentioned that one of the most disheartening things that I have heard admissions counselors say is that most students “lose” their admissions because of their letters of recommendation. Lose. Meaning, they had it and someone else messed it up. Students will most likely ask the teacher they think knows them best and they think that person is the teacher who taught the course the student earned a high grade in. That teacher is likely writing a letter about how great that student is in English but (A) your transcript already said that and (B) your letters need to say something about your character. Find someone who knows you in different capacities for the longest amount of time. This might even be the person who taught the course you earned the worst grade in, and then the letter becomes an opportunity to redeem yourself.

The next thing to think about is not every teacher knows how to write a letter of recommendation. People think I’m a jerk for saying that because they are assuming I mean grammar and format. Of course teachers know how to write and spell and format. But not everyone knows how to write for a college audience. I guessed that but really knew it when I saw that high schools with high attrition to four-year colleges require that all of their teachers take a letter-writing workshop.

If you don’t have that opportunity, consider the above and ask if that person can write a “good” letter, not for grammar (don’t be rude) but for the audience and for you (I’ve also heard some teachers say they feel bad about saying no to students so they often write average letters and don’t tell the student). Since the teachers who are really good at it probably have a ton of students asking them, be courteous and give that person enough time to hook you up by asking early, maybe at the start of summer.

(4) Your personal statement… Let’s say a student has terrific grades in Science. Then she gets letters from her Science teachers. Finally, she tops it off by writing a statement about how much she loves Science. Your application needs to be in THREE distinct parts, not repeating the same thing three times.

Think about your personal statement as 1,000 words to convince someone you aren’t a punk and have passion outside of what is found in a book. Schools keep saying that they want “interesting” especially for the majors that aren’t so…interesting. If we are relying on this generation to be innovative, you have to demonstrate that you are at least willing to be innovative by all of the new ways you think about things now.

(5) You forgot something. Back to my list of shocking pieces of information–I have heard college counselors say that the number one reason why they reject students is because the students have forgotten something in their application. The Common App will sort of alert students before they hit submit but what I have seen on this end is one of two things: (1) You put a placeholder in, such as a document that only says “personal statement” so that you could continue with the application and you forgot to replace it with the actual thing or (2) the college contacted you to submit another transcript at the end of the year and you did not.

These are easy enough but the easiest thing is often the most difficult. I’m definitely Type A so the amount of notebooks with checklists and To-Do lists neatly placed on my bookshelves is lightweight ridiculous. So if I happened to forget, it’s because I didn’t have a notebook handy. Make daily, weekly, monthly, and maybe even a list for the year and revise, revisit, and revise again. Constantly. And the best part? That feeling of accomplishment when you check off items.

Need another set of eyes? Contact me!