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3 Surprising Reasons Students Don’t Get into Top Colleges

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Listen to my interview with Shirag Shemmassian (transcript):


 

For many of our students, getting into a good college is a top priority. They work like crazy to get perfect grades, spend years enrolled in test-prep courses, and sign up for every extracurricular activity available. After all, this is what they have been advised to do.

It turns out that this widely prescribed triad of perfect grades, perfect test scores, and a laundry list of extracurriculars may be a bit…imprecise. In other words, a lot of what we think will get students into highly selective colleges might actually have the opposite effect. What’s worse, a lot of those activities can be incredibly time consuming, energy draining, and expensive.

Shirag Shemmassian

Shirag Shemmassian has had plenty of experience with college applications. He attended Cornell University and UCLA himself, spent several years as an admissions interviewer at Cornell, and now, through Shemmassian Academic Consulting, he teaches students and their families how to achieve college admissions success.

Over the years, Shemmassian has learned what factors really make colleges take notice, and what he has to share might surprise you.

“Parents and students don’t really know where to go for high-quality information,” Shemmassian says. “It seems like everyone around them is doing everything…enrolling in the most difficult classes, trying to get the highest standardized test scores. But beyond that, they’re not really sure how to stand out. Should they join every club or activity? Students are all hearing the same advice, so they, of course, end up looking like every other applicant. What they thought they should do is actually contributing, in large part, to them not standing out.”

Here we’ll take a look at three mistakes students make in the name of getting accepted into their top college choices. Shemmassian explains why these choices are counterproductive, and what students should be doing instead.

Mistake 1: Taking *ALL* the Tough Classes

“Top schools are looking for students who challenge themselves academically,” Shemmassian says, “and of course the more AP classes or honors classes you enroll yourself in, the more it’s going to seem like you challenged yourself. So it makes sense, right?”

But every one of those classes requires a great deal of study time outside of class. If course loads completely max out all of students’ available free time, it limits their ability to pursue other things. And those “other things” are ultimately what will make a student stand out to colleges.

“Say you’re applying to Yale for admissions, and the person on that admissions committee sees a ton of applications, mostly from students who are incredibly high achieving, so they have perfect or near perfect grades, they have perfect or near perfect SAT scores. So if you’re that person, how could you differentiate among these candidates? Do you just close your eyes and put your fingers on a few names and admit them? No. That’s not the way it works, right? They’re really looking for the superstars outside of the classroom. Now if you’ve enrolled in too many AP or honors courses, it takes away a lot of time that you would otherwise be able to devote to extracurricular activities.”

Students are all hearing the same advice, so they, of course, end up looking like every other applicant.

So what should students do instead?

Shemmassian says students should absolutely take challenging classes, just not necessarily all of them. “So if there are five AP courses being offered by their school for that grade year, then maybe take three. If you feel like it’s a subject you’re especially strong in, you could take four, because the fourth one isn’t as difficult. The goal is not to think too much about the number of them, but to make sure that you leave time to pursue other things.”

Mistake 2: Doing Whatever It Takes to Maximize Test Scores

When it comes to college admissions, of course SAT and ACT scores matter. But Shemmassian explains that “focusing or over-focusing on standardized tests takes away time from what truly matters, which is building that unique extracurricular profile to stand out.”

When students spend years enrolled in test-prep courses and devote hours studying for, taking, and retaking these tests for the sake of a few more points, they are using up time that would be better spent deepening their experiences within some area of interest. And even if a student does attain those perfect scores, without anything else to differentiate him, he simply won’t stand out.

It’s important to remember that it’s not all 1600 scores who are going to Ivy League schools.

Instead, students should take a more reasonable approach that values a good test score, but not at the expense of other activities: Pick a period of time to really focus on test prep—Shemmassian recommends about a semester—during which time a student should study intensely, take the ACT or SAT a few times and shoot for a score between the 25th and 75th percentiles of admitted applicants at their schools of choice.

“If you visit any school’s website, you can look at a class profile, and they will very clearly have the data there. So the 25th to 75th percentile of admitted applicants’ SAT scores, for example, say they’re 1480 to 1540, right? That’s the range that you should aim for. Anything above that is a bonus…there are many students who get above the 75th percentile who don’t get in. And with any middle 50th percentile, of course, 25 percent of students who get in are above those numbers, 25 percent of students are below those numbers…it’s important to remember that it’s not a bunch of 1600 scores who are going to Ivy League and UC schools and other top schools like that.”

Once these first two mistakes are out of the way—once a student is no longer spending every hour of their free time studying for tests or maximizing their course load—how that student spends the remaining time is what will make the biggest difference to college admissions officers.

Mistake 3: No Extracurricular Focus

“People think that colleges want to admit ‘well-rounded students,’” Shemmassian says. So students join as many clubs and teams as possible and try to pursue leadership positions in each one.

In reality, “Colleges are actually looking for student bodies that are collectively well-rounded, comprising a bunch of specialists who together are an incredibly well-rounded and diverse student body. They’re not looking for students who do a little bit of a lot of things.”

Instead of being Jacks of all trades, students should figure out what they’re really passionate about, then become a specialist—what Shemmassian calls a “Michael Jordan”—in that area.

But what if a student doesn’t know what to specialize in? What if she doesn’t feel she has natural talent in any one area?

“It starts very small,” Shemmassian says. “So if the student is interested in art, they might start out with just doing their own artwork, maybe teaching other students in their community to paint, maybe it’s students from a low-income school that don’t have resources or access to art classes and things like that. So you can see what your student demonstrates interest in and take that step. So you’re exploring at the beginning.”

If that student continues to work within that field, growing her skills, taking on leadership roles, and finding ways to serve the community in that same field, rather than pursuing ten other things, she becomes a specialist. Even though you’re not necessarily Picasso or anything, when you take these incremental steps and start making connections in the community and start getting attention, by the time you apply, you look like a Michael Jordan.”

Less is More

If there is one theme that unites all three of these, it’s that students who want to get into top colleges need to be doing less of the stuff that doesn’t make a big impact so they can do more of what does.

For students whose schedules are packed with an insane number of classes and activities, this advice should come as a relief, giving them permission to figure out what really matters to them, what they were put on this earth to do, then devoting plenty of time to pursuing that.

Sounds like a recipe not just for college admissions, but for a happy, healthy life. ♦

 


You can learn more about how Shirag Shemmassian helps families succeed with college admissions at Shemmassian Academic Consulting.


 

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11 Comments

  1. Vanessa says:

    Great post…wish we’d seen this years ago! My daughter is a senior and the last 4 years have been all about the college app! Fortunately, she did get into her “reach” school and we’re so excited. One thing does occur to me though about specializing in one thing. Teens are still so young. They are figuring out who they are and what they like and are good at. On the one hand, I would think that trying out lots of different activities is exactly what most of them should be doing as they explore the world around them and try to find their place. No one needs to be an expert at 17.

    • Glad you enjoyed the episode, Vanessa! And thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. Before I address them, however, I want to congratulate your daughter and family on her getting into her “reach” school. I can only imagine how excited y’all are 🙂

      Your point about letting teens explore is well taken. In fact, it’s exactly what we encourage with our students. However, there are two things every family needs to consider during this exploration and specialization process with regard to college admissions:

      1) Grade in school: We like to think of the exploration process as a funnel. At the start of high school, students may not know exactly which field(s) they want to get deeper into. For example, a 9th grader may be interested in tennis, computer coding, and fashion. After exploring opportunities in all three, they may realize they prefer computer coding and fashion the most. In 10th grade, we’d encourage them to take “the next step” and go deeper in their chosen areas. In 11th grade and beyond, we’re in the refinement and growth stages, where we encourage students to get very focused on one or two areas and really think about making the biggest community impact as possible. Of course, the sooner a student begins this process, the deeper they can go down the funnel and the greater the specialty they can develop (i.e., the narrow part of the funnel).

      2) Number of areas: While exploration is a good thing, there needs to be some focus. What colleges don’t like to see is students doing a little bit of a lot of things. The better approach, regardless of their chosen field(s), is to figure out what exactly about that activity they like. For example, if a student loves volleyball, I would ask them, “What aspects of volleyball do you like?” Whereas one student may say they enjoy the competition, another may say that they enjoy the exercise and nutrition associated with it, and yet another may say they most enjoy the teamwork. Then, we brainstorm with the student how they can make a big impact through volleyball in the ways they would like. Within that even, we encourage students to explore. Do you like the exercise and nutrition aspects of volleyball? If so, let’s consider setting up a small program for community kids to teach them about exercise and nutrition. Didn’t enjoy that? How about raising money through volleyball and donating it to a health care foundation. Enjoyed that? Let’s discuss ways to partner with larger organizations to increase your impact. And so on.

      I hope these examples show you how this exploration and specialization happens organically and is mainly student-driven. For a deeper discussion, I encourage you to read my TeenLife article on this topic: https://www.teenlife.com/blogs/how-extracurricular-activity-top-college

      Again, congrats to your family and thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Tom Rawson says:

    Hi Jenn …

    I am an avid reader here, I have learned a lot and implemented all kinds of things you’ve suggested, and shared them with others. Usually I love what you write. Not today!

    Some background: I teach 8th-grade science in a relatively well-resourced suburban district. It’s more diverse than people realize, but still pretty homogeneous. I live in an urban district with what may be one of the most truly diverse high schools in the country. My family is multiracial and bilingual, with one child a freshman in college now and one who graduated two years ago. So I am writing both as a teacher with students who are going to high school and thinking about their path there, and as a parent who has been through the college process twice.

    Just to be clear, I know a few students do need the advice you posted, and for them it looks like some of it pretty good advice. That said …

    My main problem with your post is that the key issue facing 90% or more of students in college selection is absolutely NOT how to “Get Into Top Colleges.” This applies across a huge range of districts, mostly regardless of demographics except in very extreme cases. There is tons of college advice out there and a wildly disproportionate amount of it is on this topic. I’m sorry to see you contributing to this trend because I think it’s a bad one. The advice is often pretty good, it’s the preponderance of it that’s the issue.

    I think the constant drumbeat about “top colleges” encourages most students to think that they should be trying to go there. Students end up feeling they need to focus on “how to be (or at least look) academically amazing” — and then feel badly about not living up that standard — when they should be focused on “how to be (and present) *you*.” There were inklings of the latter in your interviewee’s comments, but mostly his advice is still about how to be amazing, in a very particular and elite academic way.

    One example: His idea of an SAT score one might be dealing with was 1480 – 1540. My daughter goes to an excellent and very well-respected public university where the 25th – 75th percentile SAT scores are 950 – 1160. If you are that student with an SAT score of 1000 and the advice you read is constantly talking about a range like 1480 – 1540 as if that were the norm, what will you think? He also says students should be the “Michael Jordan” in the extracurricular are they choose to focus on. Really? So if you are not Michael Jordan — and most of us aren’t — where does that leave you? (I also agree with the other poster that students should be able to explore different areas in high school, not have to be come experts to impress colleges.) Some students will find one or two extracurricular things to focus on in high school, others need to explore. Pretty much no one needs to try to be Michael Jordan.

    In fact most students do not go to top colleges, should not be trying to do so, won’t do well there, and can’t afford them. If you want the stats, infoplease.com counts 2474 public or private 4-year colleges in the US. collegesimply.com ranks 291 of them as having acceptance rates under 50%, and only 37 as under 20%.

    The key issue for most students is not how to get in to a really selective school. It is “fit” — what’s the best place for that student? That’s very different, very important, and as it turns out there are a LOT of students out there who don’t find a good match. That is where our efforts and discussion need to go, both so students generally do well and for the sake of equity.

    For a fairly careful study which documents the high prevalence of both undermatching (choosing a school that’s not challenging enough) and overmatching (choosing one that’s too challenging), see the news article from Inside Higher Ed at http://tinyurl.com/ldjq448, or the full study at http://www.nber.org/papers/w19286.pdf. Undermatching is well-documented as particularly affecting college prospects for poor students and students of color, and something we have also seen clearly among some of our children’s friends. The study is very clear that the issue driving these trends is not admissions decisions but student choice.

    So bottom line, I’m not happy to see one more discussion about getting into “top colleges.” I don’t think it serves students well or promotes equity. However, I would love to see you do something about “fit” and the undermatching and overmatching, especially the former. I think they are bigger issues.

    Thanks,

    Tom

    • Hi Tom,

      I really appreciate you contributing to this discussion because you bring up several excellent points (e.g., focusing on “fit”, educational disparities). Moreover, you bring a unique perspective as an experienced parent and teacher, let alone being part of a diverse family and living in a diverse part of our country.

      Despite the centrality of “top colleges” in my conversation with Jenn, the same advice applies for schools in any tier. We could’ve used the title, “3 Surprising Ways to Maximize College Admissions Odds” and the guidance would’ve been the same.

      Suppose we divided colleges into (admissions) competitiveness tiers, such as “ultra competitive,” “highly competitive,” “moderately competitive,” “less competitive,” etc. A student with higher grades and test scores would be more likely to get into the “ultra competitive” and “highly competitive” schools than a student with lower grades and test scores. However, each student’s admissions odds will increase at schools within any tier if they develop a distinguishable specialty.

      In addition, I want to challenge the assumption that aiming for top colleges somehow puts you at greater risk for attending a poor “fit” school. Good fit and poor fit schools exist in any competitiveness tier. For example, if a very strong student wants to go to an Ivy League school, we would never tell them, “It doesn’t matter which one you go to, as long as you go to one of them.” Rather, I would ask them what they’re looking for in their dream college (academics, extracurriculars, programs, geography, etc.) and make specific recommendations based on that information. Similarly, if a student is aiming to attend a school in the “moderately competitive” category, we would take this individualized approach with them too. We take school selection very seriously because we want our students to not only get into great schools, but also thrive there.

      Nevertheless, following this advice will help students be more competitive for all schools, including the ones where they fit best. So why not increase the likelihood that they can actually get into those schools? We advise students across all backgrounds and ranges of admissions competitiveness and we’re glad to do it.

      I also want to challenge the assumption that “need[ing] to explore” and focusing on less activities is mutually exclusive. As I mentioned in my response to Vanessa above, I agree that every student ought to explore their interests before learning where they would like to devote more effort. The sooner and more deliberately this process is approached, however, the more focused–and less scattered–the student will typically be. The “Michael Jordan” effect happens naturally as a result of this process. I encourage you to read Cal Newport’s “How to Be a High School Superstar” for a lengthy discussion on this.

      Fortunately, students who follow the approach we discuss report having more free time and feeling less stressed than their peers, as well as having much clearer direction on which aspects of their academics and extracurriculars to prioritize. This is the type of fulfillment we hope that all students can enjoy.

    • Nancy McKenna says:

      Can I just say Amen to what Tom wrote? I completely agree with what he said. I am a parent of two soon-to-be-applying-to-colleges teenagers, and I have been thinking good and hard about this.

      I went to a very “average” college myself, and enjoyed it. It was the right fit for me at the time. Even though the school was average, I have done well in my career. And I think about the people I work with – six figure salaries all (I’m the Controller so I know) – and know that they too went to “average” schools. As Tom points out, most people DO go to average schools.

      I work with millenials, who speak of their college debt. We’ve all heard the horror stories. We have six young people who all have the same level job, and make the same salary. Two went to CUNY schools and have no student debt. (Of course CUNY schools are very well rated and selective. They just don’t cost a lot. And the guys lived at home) The others went to other “selective” schools and have crushing amounts of debt. Who do we think is better off? (And less stressed?)

      I agree with Tom that this obsession about getting our kids into the “best” possible schools is misplaced. The truth is that it is their aptitude for the career they choose, and their ambition that will guide their future success. Not where they went to school.

      • Thanks for your comment, Nancy! It’s great to read how thoughtful you’ve been about your teenagers’ upcoming college admissions process.

        I agree with you that there’s nothing wrong with attending (as you put it) “average” colleges. There are intelligent and high-achieving students at highly selective and less selective colleges. Moreover, students can certainly enjoy their experience at less selective schools and pursue interesting and lucrative careers after graduation.

        As I mentioned in my response to Tom, one of my goals is to help students get into the schools where they will be challenged and also thrive. For some students, those are highly selective schools. For others, those are less selective schools. In my conversation with Jenn, we wanted to answer the question: “OK, if someone does want to attend a top college, what should they do–and NOT do?”

        That said, there are empirically-supported benefits to attending selective (i.e., not simply expensive) colleges:

        1) On average, students who attend highly selective schools–like Ivy League universities–earn significantly more than peers who attend less selective schools. Here’s one article (with a controversial title) citing data from the Department of Education that supports this:

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/09/14/this-chart-shows-why-parents-push-their-kids-so-hard-to-get-into-ivy-league-schools/?utm_term=.6ba4a43256c1

        However, recent studies have found that this higher level of pay associated with selective schools may be field-specific:

        https://www.wsj.com/articles/do-elite-colleges-lead-to-higher-salaries-only-for-some-professions-1454295674

        Is it possible that individuals who do well career-wise would have done so regardless of whether they attended a highly selective or less selective school? Perhaps. Unfortunately, however, we would never be able to conduct a true experiment to answer this question definitively. However, the association between selective schools and income is intriguing.

        —-

        2) The most selective schools tend to be the most generous. In other words, they cover a much larger percentage of students’ financial need than less selective schools.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy, Founder of The College Solution, demonstrates this point clearly across multiple articles. Here are two of them:

        http://www.thecollegesolution.com/the-nations-62-most-generous-colleges/

        http://www.thecollegesolution.com/list-of-colleges-that-meet-100-of-financial-need/

        If you don’t want to read the articles, they can be summarized by Lynn’s sentence: “Not surprisingly, highly elite schools predominate [this list].”

        I actually graduated with my B.S. from Cornell and my Ph.D. from UCLA completely debt-free. I did this through a combination of generous financial aid and scholarships. However, I put in a lot of time when researching the schools I would apply to to make sure I could afford them if admitted.

        Unfortunately, many students don’t apply to top colleges where they would be an excellent fit simply because of the high sticker prices. Therefore, it’s important to spread the word that high-achieving students can graduate from selective schools without incurring “crushing amounts of debt.”

        If students can attend a highly selective, good fit school at an affordable price, why not?

        If you’re interested in helping your children win scholarships, you should check out my Ultimate Guide to Finding and Winning College Scholarships:

        https://www.shemmassianconsulting.com/blog/ultimate-guide-to-finding-and-winning-college-scholarships

        —-

        At the end of the day, even if this podcast episode/article’s topic doesn’t resonate with you, I encourage you not to dismiss the strategies that can help your children maximize their admission odds.

        Regardless, I wish your children and your family the best of luck with their college admissions process–and beyond!

  3. Momhere says:

    You lost me at 3, no 4 AP classes. That’s the problem. 3-4 AP is not appropriate for most students. Students are taking them, and getting stressed out because they, at 16-17, are not ready for college material. Or they take the “easy AP’s” which don’t mean much anyway.

    Also, it’s sort of nauseating the way it’s expected to have these resume building extracurriculars. Let them be kids! For 90 percent of them, it is not really about the activity as much as the resume. It’s ridiculous.

    There’s only one Michael Jordan, so that was a poor analogy.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the interview, Momhere! I especially appreciate you pointing to specific guidance that you took issue with. I’ll address each one.

      —-

      1) 3-4 AP classes not being appropriate for everyone: I agree, which is why I encourage students to take on the appropriate level of challenge for them. For some students, this will be 3-4 AP courses. For others, this number will be be 1, 2, or not at all. A student’s academic strengths, interests, and goals should be considered when making these decisions.

      During our conversation, Jenn and I discussed number of APs in the context of making sure to leave time to pursue extracurricular activities meaningfully, rather than join the high school rat race of signing up for everything.

      In my experience, students who take on too much, regardless of what is appropriate for them, do not leave enough time to explore and experiment. It’s precisely this exploration and experimentation that allows students to pursue fulfilling activities, which organically helps them develop “superstar” status on the college admissions front.

      —-

      2) The expectation to have resume-building extracurriculars: Again, I agree with you that the activities students should pursue are the ones they actually enjoy.

      I regularly give my students the following rule of thumb: “If you’re looking to pursue X simply because you think you ‘should’ or ‘have to’, that’s a clear sign that you probably shouldn’t pursue that activity.”

      Not only does the typical approach to “resume building” leave students unfulfilled, it also leads to them blending in with most of the college applicant pool.

      —-

      3) The Michael Jordan analogy: Your point about there being only one Michael Jordan is spot-on. Therefore, a student shouldn’t try to be Michael Jordan; they should work towards being the Michael Jordan of their preferred niche.

      To me, the most interesting–and relieving–part of this discussion is how any niche can be that particular student’s basketball court.

      Dr. Cal Newport discusses this concept in his guest article on Tim Ferriss’ website: From CEOs to Opera Singers–How to Harness the “Superstar Effect”:

      http://tim.blog/2010/07/27/the-superstar-effect/

      Dr. Newport explains that “Being the best in a field makes you disproportionately impressive to the outside world. This effect holds even if the field is not crowded, competitive, or well-known.”

      It is harder to achieve this in some fields (e.g., becoming the best basketball player in the country, or even your state) than others (e.g., becoming the most noteworthy teen blogger on living with autism spectrum disorder).

      —-

      I’m sure many others share similar objections to my guidance, so I thank you for contributing to the conversation!

  4. This is an important conversation, which we also engage in with parents, students, counselors and consultants. Everyone is hungry for reliable information, and it looks like Shirag has provided a lot of good info here. For more, I invite you to visit our website (we only focus on application essays, but we know a lot about admissions in general) for solid, free resources.

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