There are plenty of misconceptions about admissions — that SAT scores are determinative, that joining a bazillion clubs and organizations will help your chances, that a great interview can make a difference, that one C on a transcript is the kiss of death — but I would say that the biggest mistake a student can make is to get his or her heart set on one “perfect” school.
Every student should have eight first-choice schools, at various levels of selectivity.
College admissions is a game of both skill and chance. Students need to not limit themselves by thinking there’s only one good place for them. There are lots. Really. Without question, the single most important factor in college admissions is the high school transcript. Which courses have you taken and what grades have you earned? This is the best predictor of college success and admissions officers know it. Take hard classes and do as well as you possibly can.
Getting a perfect score on your SATs is not going to assure you entrance to the college of your choice. Standardized testing is one of the factors that will be considered; unfortunately, because it is the easiest to talk about, it gets far more attention than it actually merits. The applications I remember most clearly are those of the students who, once they came to campus, I sought out and became friends with. It was because they showed me — on paper — who they were: their hopes, their dreams, their family backgrounds, their tics, their habits of mind. These traits came through in different ways — in their personal statements, from the recommendations from their teachers, in the description of the activities they pursued and the ways in which they participated. The truth is, selective college admissions is a personal process. It’s obviously intensely personal for the applicants, but, and this may be surprising, it’s also deeply affecting to those who are reading the applications. Your goal is to make someone fall in love with you — to read your application and to say to themselves and to their colleagues: this is a student we want on our campus. As a college counselor I help students come up with a good list of schools (that represent a wide range in selectivity) and then I talk with them to figure out what is truly unique and interesting about him or herself.
Because I believe that my role is more of a teacher than a professional consultant, I work hard with students on their writing skills. My goal is not merely to help students apply to college, but to help them learn how to think and to express themselves clearly and with passion.