Originally Posted: Jul 15, 2016
Last Updated: May 26, 2020
There are a lot of misconceptions about college and what it takes to get in due to movies, stories from family or friends, and the internet. College is a huge change, and before you can go you have to get in, but before you start worrying that you’re not a genius in science like your friend or a musical prodigy like that one kid in band, let’s clear some things up for you. We took a look at these and other common misconceptions about college, from getting scholarships with a low GPA to whether or not admission counselors really read your essays. So keep reading to find out what’s true—and what’s totally false.
True or False: You don’t have to be a perfect student to be accepted to good college
TRUE: This isn’t to say you can have a 1.5 GPA and get into Harvard. But colleges—even top schools—are looking for driven and diverse classes, not cookie-cutter “perfect” students. They want students who are artists and athletes, students who have overcome adversity, students who work part-time jobs, students who volunteer, and students from across the economic spectrum. The point is: find the colleges that really fit you (including those reach schools) and apply, because you never know what will happen until you do.
True or False: Senior year of high school doesn’t matter to colleges
FALSE: Colleges definitely pay attention to your senior year grades and activities—that’s why they ask to see your final transcript. So even though it’s easy to feel like you can relax after you get those sweet acceptance letters (senioritis is real, y’all), you need to keep trying and keep showing your college that you deserve your spot in their freshman class.
Granted, a slight dip in your second-semester grades probably won’t hurt, but anything more will raise a red flag. Just ask the high school seniors who lost their acceptances because they let their GPA plummet or because they got into other kinds of trouble (like academic probation for cheating, because they couldn’t be bothered to study). Don’t let that happen to you.
True or False: Public schools are easy to get into, and private colleges are hard
FALSE: It all depends on the college, and acceptance rates totally run the gamut for both public and private schools. Although it’s true that most of the insanely selective colleges are private (looking at you, Stanford), some public schools are right up there with them. For example, University of California, Berkeley is actually harder to get into than Cornell, an Ivy League school. On the other hand, there are also plenty of private schools with admission rates over 60%, 70%, and even 80%.
True or False: Low test scores will destroy your chances of getting into college
FALSE: Colleges know that your test scores are just one piece of the puzzle that makes up your application. And they ask for all those different materials—transcript, essay, test scores, list of extracurriculars, etc.—because one piece alone won’t cut it.
Of course, test scores are still a relatively important part of your application package; most admission officers rank them just behind your high school curriculum and grades. But they’re not the end-all be-all. Your high school grades and classes provide a more accurate view of you as a student, so even if your test scores are a little low, a strong transcript will show that you’re ready for college.
All this being said, if your test scores are way out of line with your high school transcript, it’s going to look odd to admission reps. So prepare for the tests you plan to take, and if you have any justifiable reasons for a lower-than-usual score (learning disability, severe test-taking anxiety, or even something traumatic happening in your life, like a parent becoming ill), include a brief explanation with your college applications.
True or False: The college with the lowest sticker price isn’t always the cheapest option
TRUE: Huh? That doesn’t even make sense! Here’s the thing: financial aid changes everything. It’s totally possible that the most expensive school on your list will offer you enough aid to magically become your cheapest option. Or you might find the school offering you the biggest financial aid package made a huge chunk of that “aid” student loans. Or you might get a big scholarship from one school that only lasts for freshman year, whereas another school offers a smaller scholarship that actually lasts all four years and is therefore worth more… Confusing, right? This is why you need to make sure you fully understand your financial aid award letters when you get them.
FYI, this isn’t to say you should automatically choose your cheapest college option; we’re talking about your future, not Black Friday deals. If the right school for you comes with the higher price tag—and you won’t be drowning in student debt to get there—you and your family might decide the extra cost is worth it. And that’s okay.
Related: How to Figure Out Your College Costs
True or False: College is harder than high school
TRUE: Yup, it sure is. Your classes and teachers will ask more of you—more in-depth research, more analysis, more time, more effort—than they did in high school. Plus, you’ve got tons of extracurriculars and social things pulling at your attention. And you’re basically on your own for staying on top of it all. Yikes.
The good news is that you’ll be pushing yourself to learn and grow in meaningful ways—and isn’t that what college is all about? Plus, you’ll be studying something you enjoy (hopefully), which often makes homework and projects a little easier to get through. And you’ll learn to stay on top of your class work, social life, and other responsibilities by managing your time well.
Finally, you’ll almost always have people you can ask for help when you need it, whether it’s your professors or campus tutors. So, yes, college is harder, but in really good and totally manageable ways.
True or False: Only rich kids can afford college—especially the top schools
FALSE: This is a particularly cruddy myth, because it convinces a lot of students who truly belong in college that they can’t afford it. But between all the financial aid out there (work-study, grants, scholarships, even some loans) and more college choices than you can shake a stick at (around 4,000 two- and four-year schools in the US alone) you can make college affordable.
And here’s the craziest thing about those super-selective top schools: if you are smart enough to get into the Harvards and Dukes of the world, you can afford to go to them. It doesn’t matter if your family doesn’t earn a lot of money, because those schools often have the most generous financial aid packages, some even meeting 100% of demonstrated need. If you’re not sure you’ll be able to afford the colleges that fit you, get in touch with them; financial aid officers can help explain your options.
True or False: You don’t need a high GPA and test scores to get scholarships
TRUE: Shocking, right?! But there are tons of scholarships that don’t consider GPA and test scores. From weird scholarships for left-handed folks to rewarding your community service activities, there are awards out there for just about everything—and so much more than outstanding academics.
Don’t believe us? Make a list of everything that makes you you, from your hair color to your hobbies. Google each one of those things plus “scholarship.” You’ll see.
True or False: Admission counselors don’t read application essays
FALSE: Why on earth would they ask for them if they didn’t read them?! Colleges employ whole teams of admission counselors, and they read hundreds (if not thousands) of essays every year.
The whole point of having real people (not computers) review applications is to determine if a student is a good fit for the school and vice versa. The essay is a huge part of that, because it’s a window into who a student really is—as long as the essay is also written well. Test scores and GPAs will never offer the whole picture. So it’s really in colleges’ best interest to read the essays—and that’s why they do.
True or False: Earning a B in a hard class looks better on college apps than an A in an easy class
TRUE: Sure, a high GPA is nice, but admission officers would rather see you challenging yourself academically. They will always be more impressed by a B in Advanced Physics than an A in Introduction to Dream Journaling. This doesn’t mean you have to choose the super hard class every single time, but try to take the most challenging high school class schedule you can handle, and don’t pad your GPA by taking all easy classes.
True or False: You need to know what your major is before starting college
FALSE: You don’t need to know exactly what you’re going to study when you apply or even enroll. You can apply undecided, or you can include a major on your college applications and change your mind later. Just make sure you have some inkling of what you want to study. Going to college with no direction whatsoever can lead down a twisty path of taking classes you don’t need, which often means spending extra time and money getting your degree. And nobody wants that.
Related: How to Choose Your Major (or Not)
The long story short here is that college is never going to be exactly what you expect it to be. Each student, college, and admission representative is different, so while you can use these true and false statements are a good guide to ease some worries, they aren’t the answers to everything. College—and everything you do before in order to get to college—is what you make of it!