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Good, Bad, and Unnecessary College Application Advice You Need to Know

You'll hear a lot of advice during the college application process, but it won't be all good! Here's what you should listen to and what you can ignore.

Starting your college search is an exciting time—you’re pumped to visit colleges and universities and see which ones fit you best. Deciding where to spend the next four years of your life is a thrilling (albeit scary) process. But it can also be a pretty stressful time. You’re going to get a lot of advice from numerous sources: your parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, counselors, teachers, bosses. It seems like everyone has an opinion when it comes to applying to college, and they want you to know about it. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common advice you’ll hear, including what to listen to and what to ignore completely.

Good advice

These are the tips you’ll want to perk your ears up for. It will help you elevate your applications, make the college search more fun, and enhance your overall admission experience.

Go on plenty of campus tours

College tours are fun! You get to wander around campus, meeting new people and trying out a new environment. When you finally pick a college, you’ll want to make sure you’ll be comfortable there. The best way to figure that out is to physically set foot on campus. Try visiting schools of all different types so you get a feel for the environment you really want to be in. Even if you don’t think you’d enjoy a smaller liberal arts college or a larger state university, check one out. Just one! You might surprise yourself.

Going on campus visits will allow you to meet current students and talk to them about what they like (and dislike) about their college. While student ambassadors offer tons of information, they are paid by the college and are encouraged to tell you only about the best things. Talking to students who aren’t ambassadors will give you a more candid view of the school.  Visiting campus also gives you the opportunity to meet professors. Since college is supposed to be about your education, you should make sure you’re happy with the faculty you’re planning to study under. Get a feel for the academic atmosphere so you know you’ll excel there.

Related: The Best Ways to Make Your College Campus Visits More Fun

Apply only to colleges you want to attend

College applications cost money—who knew? A lot of schools offer various waivers and ways to reduce the cost of application fees, but you may still find yourself shelling out when you hit submit. Regardless of the money you’re investing in applications, you’re investing a lot of time into each one. So why put in all that effort for a college or university you don’t really want to attend? Your time is more valuable than that.

At some point, most colleges and universities will ask you to explain why you want to attend their institution. If you have no real interest in a school, you either won’t have an answer or you’ll have to make one up. Fun fact: when people say you shouldn’t lie on your applications, that’s not just confined to grades and extracurricular activities. Be honest with yourself. And if you don’t want to attend a school, don’t apply there. That means you also need to like your “safety” schools. You never know what will happen when it comes to college admission—the school that’s last on your list may give you the most scholarships and grants. And if you’re applying to extremely selective colleges and universities—ones known for turning away plenty of valedictorians—you don’t want your only backup plan to be a place you hate.

Bad advice

Sorry, I did not mean to roll my eyes that loudly. But when you hear advice like this, it’s hard not to. Listening to these “tips” will lead you to all manners of stress you don’t need.

Join a bunch of clubs to show you’re involved

You shouldn’t overbook your schedule because you think it will look good on your applications. Colleges and universities care about the quality of your involvement, not the quantity. Taking on one or two extracurricular activities and having leadership positions in those few is far more impressive than a long list of clubs you participated in for only a year. Being involved in an extracurricular activity should mean you care about it. You’re showcasing your passions to colleges by telling them what you want to spend your free time doing. Being a leader in a club shows you have initiative and drive, which colleges love. Just remember that leadership roles require responsibility and time. Stretching yourself thin across too many activities could impede your abilities as a leader—not to mention, it’s exhausting!

Don’t feel like you’re missing out if you can only commit to one club because of other responsibilities like a job or volunteering. Those other commitments also showcase your determination and initiative. If you believe your time outside of school is better spent adding professional experience to your résumé, that’s not a bad decision on your part.

Related: High School Extracurriculars: What Impresses Admission Committees (and What Doesn’t)

Get a “practical” major

Someone decided that majoring in English, Theater, Art, or anything else that isn’t STEM or Business is “unpractical,” and unfortunately the idea took off for some reason. Fake news spread that it’s impossible to get a job after college if you don’t plan to be an engineer, doctor, or accountant…or if you do get a job, you’ll still be a starving artist.

What makes your major practical isn’t its title—it’s what information and experience you get from it. What do you learn in your classes, both general education and major specific? Do you participate in research in your field if it’s available? In internships or co-ops? Your major will give you information about a certain field. It’s not the fact that you have the information that’s important—it’s how you apply it. There are also tons of jobs out there, and it’s important to remember what you choose as a major will not be your job title. Plenty of people get jobs in fields varying from their degrees. Focus on learning about things you’re passionate about and learning how to learn, and the world will be your oyster.

Unnecessary advice

When you hear this advice, just say “okay” and end the conversation or change the subject. It’s not even worth your time.

School name is more important than fit

According to a Gallup survey of over 600 business leaders, less than 50% of participants believed where applicants attended college mattered much when it came to hiring. Meanwhile, 98% believed knowledge of the desired field was important. What does this mean? It means hiring managers care more about your experience and knowledge than a fancy name. In your college search, make sure you focus on key factors such as how comfortable you feel on campus, what you’ll learn in your classes, and what opportunities exist outside the classroom that you’ll take advantage of. Finding the right campus fit is imperative. You will thrive on a campus where you feel welcomed and connected. If that college or university is widely recognized, that’s great! If it’s not, that’s okay too!

Your admission essay needs to include a traumatic event

Overcoming challenges is the name of the game when it comes to high school. Those challenges come in all shapes and sizes, and you grow in different ways because of each one. Yet many people believe admission officers only want to read essays about how you grew from extreme hardships surrounding subjects like death and other trauma. Admission officers want your essay to show growth, critical thinking, leadership, and/or passion. Your essay can cover a moment of clarity, a time you battled with a phobia, or a small way you managed to brighten the world. It does not have to be about how your darkest moments have changed you, especially if you don’t want to open up about them. Do not feel pressure to write about a topic you aren’t comfortable writing about.

Related: Top College Essay Tips From Admission Insiders

Your college search process is already stressful enough; don’t make it more stressful with advice that only serves to make your life more difficult. Outside of what’s listed here, trust your gut. If someone gives you advice that sounds a bit off, do some research before following it.

There are a lot more tips where these came from in Our Best Advice for Tackling Your College Applications. Check it out! 

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