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Applying to college? Don't make these 7 common mistakes

Guidance counselors and teachers keep giving bad advice to students... and even smart parents fall for it. Don't make these common mistakes!
/ Source: TODAY Contributor
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The college application process notoriously strikes fear into the hearts of high school students and their parents each fall, but does it have to? Sara Harberson, college admissions counselor at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, says no — and one key to keeping your sanity might be finding a way to wade through the process without falling prey to bad advice.

"There are a lot of people giving bad advice to families, and it's painful to hear what they're saying,” says Harberson.

Harberson — who worked in admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and was the youngest college dean of admissions in the country when she took that role at Franklin & Marshall College at the age of 32 —weighed in on 7 of the most prevalent examples of bad college admissions advice, which make the whole experience harder than it should be:

1. “Colleges are looking for well-rounded students. Join every club and activity you can!”

Colleges are looking for well-rounded classes, not individual students. They are looking for students who specialize in one or two pursuits — not 12 — that allow them to make an “impact,” as Harberson terms it, whether it is a sport, a club, an art or some other form of activity.

“You need to make a difference with whatever it is you choose,” Harberson says. “It can even be a part-time job. Making an impact by bringing in income to help your family is just as important as winning a national art award. It can look very different for different students.”

RELATED: 8 things I wish I'd known about the college admissions waiting game

2. “You can’t afford that college.”

Financial aid is more available and more abundant than a lot of families realize. Many of the country’s most elite — and most expensive — colleges are extremely generous with need-based financial aid, and there is scholarship money, both merit and need-based, waiting for students and families willing to seek it out and apply for it. Students might be surprised at what they can afford.

Harberson points out the Net Price Calculators that are now federally required to be available on every college website. “If you input your financial information into the Net Price Calculator, you can get a sense of what a financial aid package might look like for you based on that information,” says Harberson. “It’s a great tool that just went into effect a couple of years ago, and it can even give a family a sense of whether a merit scholarship might be available at that institution based on a student’s unweighted GPA and test scores.”

3. “Take the SAT or ACT ‘for practice’ and as many times as you can until you get the score you want.”

The moment you take an official test, it becomes part of your testing history, warns Harberson. “Take the PSAT in fall of junior year; that is the true practice test for the SAT. Try a practice ACT at home under testing conditions. Then you can determine from those two scores which test you should stick with and begin prepping specifically for that test.”

Test prep can vary in method as well as cost. Students may work with private tutors, take a class, or just buy or borrow the books put out by test prep companies or the College Board or ACT, Inc. themselves and take practice tests in a testing environment at home — a quiet room, timed, and paced like the real deal. Khan Academy offers free online test prep, which may be especially helpful for students taking the new SAT rolling out in March.

Harberson suggests taking one or two official tests in the spring of junior year but leaving one last chance for the fall of a student’s senior year. “If you have done your due diligence and prepared, that is usually going to be your best test date out of the three,” she says. She does not advise taking either the SAT or the ACT more than three times.

4. “You’re a legacy, so you’re a shoo-in.”

Not so fast: At both state and private universities, legacy status — which can mean different things depending on the institution, including students whose grandparents, parents, and/or siblings attended the school for either undergrad or graduate school — or other alumni connections in no way guarantee admission, and students and their parents should set their expectations according to how qualified the student is for the school on their own, not how many family members attended there or how much money they give to the school each year. Schools have too many students with connections to the university to accept them all.

“Being a legacy doesn’t have the power that it used to have,” notes Harberson.

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5. “You should write your college essay about the mission trip to Haiti that your parents sent you on last spring.”

Colleges do value charitable and volunteer work; however, many students do such mission trips and write about them, so an essay about one trip will not necessarily set a student apart. Also, colleges are more impressed by long-term commitments to volunteerism or causes than by a one-off trip that a student’s parents paid for, which looks more like a resumé builder than a demonstrated, long-term commitment to a cause.

“These colleges are getting very similar essays again and again,” says Harberson, “and they are so curious about who you are. When I was reading hundreds of college application essays, I wanted to read about something that wasn’t coming up anywhere else in the application or something that really did need explaining. The best essays are often about topics that are much less obvious and do not always fit into a perfect little box, but they truly define who that student is.”

6. “You should take AP Statistics instead of AP Calculus AB. It’s easier.”

If a student is qualified to take either course, it is never better to take an “easier” class. Colleges want to see students who challenge themselves and then rise to that challenge. By taking an easier course load, a student might be able to have a higher GPA, but college admissions officers will be able to tell if a student worked below their ability.

“Rightly or wrongly, calculus is generally preferred by admissions offices versus statistics,” notes private admissions counselor Caroline Brokaw Tucker of Dunbar Educational Consultants in New Canaan, CT.

Harberson agrees: “It starts with the quality of the transcript. That’s the priority for every institution in the country,” she says.

RELATED: 11 college admissions tips we learned from the editor of the Princeton Review

7. “Applying to college sucks for everyone involved.”

If parents can keep perspective and help their children do the same, the whole process can be an opportunity for them to spend time together and learn more about each other, and in the end, the hope is that there will be a happy ending of some sort. Said one parent going through the process for the second time, “It's amazing to see [my daughter] tackle all this and grow in confidence.”

So where can parents find good advice on college admissions? Harberson suggests parents seek out a college’s Common Data Set, a collection of hard facts about a certain college, including admissions information, in any given year organized by a collaboration between colleges and the educational publishing industry. Many colleges publish the results right on their websites, so Googling “common data set” plus the university name will yield the results for that college, including exact numbers about applications, waitlists, admissions criteria, and standardized test scores straight from the college itself. (For example, here are the CDS sites for Dartmouth and the University of Florida.)

Harberson also suggests Naviance, which is software designed to show students how they fare compared to other students at the same school who applied to the colleges they are considering. “Naviance is a great resource if the high school offers it and the data is up to date,” Harberson says. “It can give students a reality check.”

But it has its limits, she notes. “The challenge with Naviance is that it’s objective, and so much of the college admissions process is subjective and very personal. The data on Naviance can’t help when it comes to determining how good a student’s personal essay is or the quality of their extracurricular activities.”

Harberson says that students have more college admissions resources than they might realize. “Go to someone trusted at the high school. It can be a guidance counselor or even an AP English or AP Calculus teacher who has been advising students in a non-traditional way throughout their careers,” she suggests. In addition, many private admissions counselors, including Harberson herself at Admissions Revolution, her private counseling company, write free blog posts with advice for students and their families.

Lisa Heffernan, a parent who has been through the process three times and co-authors the blog Grown and Flown, points out that “many of the colleges have great admissions blogs, and it is helpful to read the ones for the schools to which a kid is thinking of applying. Also, if you email an admissions officer with a question or call the office general number, they will happily answer your questions.”

This article was originally published on Nov. 30, 2015 on