High school seniors starting the college application process know this all too well: college advice comes from everyone. Teachers, counselors, friends, neighbors, Facebook ads, Tweets, Buzzfeed articles, and especially parents.
So we decided to go to the experts on the subject. We got the opinions of two dozen admissions professionals who shared some of the bad college selection advice they’ve heard from parents with good intentions.
As you would expect, we found some patterns. Here are the top three pieces of bad advice according to our expert panel:
- Major in something that will get you a high-paying job.
- Don’t even consider applying to a school with a high price tag.
- Choose the cheapest college you can find.
If your looking to improve your college application decision, avoid these common mistakes.
Look for the Cheapest Option
Parents give plenty of bad advice to their kids but I think it is particularly bad advice to tell their kid that he/she should choose the college that offers the best financial aid award.
Another one that especially irritates me is when a parent tells their kid to [put down an enrollment deposit] at more than one college.
Don’t Worry About Your Final High School Semester
Parents are right behind friends in offering poor advice to college applicants. They might be worse since they are less likely to be questioned by the applicant. I have heard things like:
I thought colleges don’t look at the final semester grades, so we thought it would be OK to drop those classes. – I have worked with students who drop academic classes or reduce their effort in classes after they gain acceptance to colleges in the spring of their senior year. Colleges can, and do, rescind admission offers if a student ‘takes the foot off the gas’ in their senior year.
We know someone on the board of trustees at that college so we are sure that is a safety school for us. – Some parents think that ‘who you know’ is more important than ‘what you know.’ Having an influential friend who is involved in a college does not assure one admission.
Any time a parent uses plural pronouns like ‘we’ in reference to the a college, as in, ‘We are going to Harvard next year.’ The parent rarely is admitted or attends with the student in my experience.
Ivy or Bust
Barbara Fritze got straight to the point on what she’s heard…
‘Everyone can play division 3 sports.’
‘Your life will be ruined if you do not go to an Ivy.’
‘Do not even consider a school whose price tag is 50K and above.’
Big Price Tag? – Don’t Even Apply
‘Don’t even consider an expensive college.’… Most colleges no longer require an application fee. That means that there is no cost to get to the point of being accepted and getting an award letter in hand to be able to compare out-of-pocket costs. Financially, it is possible that it may still not work out, but at least students and parents can have all the information in hand to make an educated decision.
‘Only major in something that you know will have a job waiting for you when you graduate.’ … Students need to, within reason, follow their passion. If you find something you love to do, then going to work is never really work. Getting a degree in something that doesn’t provide a direct career path should be exciting, not scary. Students with liberal arts degrees are finding good work and proving their worth in the workplace all over the country, and they should continue to do so.
I find the worst material coming from the students themselves, like following a boyfriend or girlfriend to college, even though you don’t like the college. Bad, bad idea.
Choose a “High-Ranked” School
The worst advice I have heard, consistently given by too many parents, is the belief that the college with the highest ranking due to the schools low admit rate and high SAT score average must be better for their child than any other choices. The final college choice needs to include the quality of the undergraduate experience. Some colleges with low admit rates and high SAT scores are not offering top faculty to teach undergrads.
Students should look beyond the rankings and numbers to make a final selection. It is okay to place a college in a “selective neighborhood” perhaps top 15 or so but then pick the one college among that group that fits them best. It is just plain stupid behavior based out of fear to pick ‘#7’ over ‘#13’ because one is 7th and one is 13th. These ratings are poorly constructed using a simplistic formula and #7 is really not #7 and # 13 is not really #13…College is not a trophy.
Know Your Major — Now!
I think the one I hear often from parents is that you need to pick your major before choosing your college. All too often parents think picking a major is the same as choosing a career – the typical college graduate will have 7-8 career changes over the course of their work life. Picking a major and choosing a career are two vastly different subjects.
Parents should spend more time helping their child think about what environment is best for their learning style rather than simply focusing on the choice of a major. If the truth was told, nearly 75% of high school seniors really have no clue on what major they will consider.
We’ll Figure Out Cost Later
‘Don’t worry about the cost. We’ll figure all that out later!’
Parents need to have detailed conversations with their child about the cost of college — and what will affordable options/opportunities look like. This is, of course, much easier to do earlier in the process, before the student has started to submit applications for admission.
And yet, every spring, (at nearly every school), there are instances where a student if finally told by a parent that a particular college/university is not possible, either because the financial situation is not affordable or because the parent(s) are unwilling to pay for it.
Ignore Schools with those Big Price Tags
‘Don’t even look there, we can’t afford it.’
The quicker [admissions professionals] can define [the value of the school] for the parents and student, the better.
And parents should know what the bottom line is in costs [for their family].
Parents Who Aren’t Quite Ready to Let Go
‘I’ll do everything for you because you don’t have the time.’
‘I’ve never heard of that school. You shouldn’t consider it.’
‘I think that you should take the SAT for the fifth time.’
‘I want you to be close so that you can come home all of the time.’
A Selective College is a Great College
‘Don’t apply there, it’s too expensive,’ [is bad advice]…
Or any advice based in the, ‘That college is really hard to get into; it must be a great college for you,’ that completely ignores anything about fit with a particular student’s talents and aspirations.
Also [bad is] advice that takes individual responsibility out of the hands of students by making it more about the parents. These are easy to spot, because they usually start with ‘We…’ as in ‘We should apply to 53 colleges this year…’
Cheap is Best
‘Just pick the cheapest one because it doesn’t matter where you get degree.’
‘All those Gen Ed liberal arts courses are a waste of time and money.’
‘Just get your degree, don’t waste time on internships and study abroad.’
[Here is one of the] best overall comments in my career:
‘Can you assist me in seeing if I attended here in my previous life? I’ve been reincarnated and here is my previous name.’
Fill Your Summers with Extracurriculars
‘Only consider early decision (ED) because it’s easier to get admitted to highly competitive [schools] under ED.’
Why is it lousy advice? For lots of reasons, including 1) your child may not have a first choice school, 2) easier is all relative, and 3) particularly for kids in smaller schools, ED is a very public process where a ‘no, you’re not admitted’ travels fast.
‘Join lots of clubs and spend summers doing pre-college programs because it looks good to admissions officers.’
Why lousy advice? It is never about quantity, it is about quality, and sustained involvement. If you are already taking a rigorous academic program during the school year, do something character-building like working, volunteering or starting a business.
Major in Something Lucrative
[Bad advice from parents that I have heard includes:]
‘Don’t follow your passion, you have to pick a major that will lead to a high-paying job.’
Undecided on Your Major? Stay Close to Home
‘My son/daughter is undecided about a major, so rather than investing in a private education, I’ll have him/her start out at a college close to home.’
In reality, the four year, private, residential college is a great place to find your major. We are well prepared to work individually with students. We strive to meet them where they are and journey with them as they engage in personal discovery, academic discovery, and eventually selection of a major.
Many Activities Cancel out a Weak Transcript
I don’t think that parents give bad advice, because there isn’t any parent who doesn’t want the best for their children. I think parents sometimes have erroneous assumptions, e.g. lots of activities will mitigate a weak academic record. That holistic review means that admission committees will ignore a spotty transcript in favor of community service and leadership accomplishments. Or that the essay should appropriately be ‘song of myself.’
My advice to parents is always do your research, ask lots of questions, don’t assume every college is looking for the same thing(s), and please don’t take your neighbor’s advice over ours.
Choose Your Major for the Money
[Bad advice from parents that I have heard includes:]
‘Don’t major in something like art, history, theater or philosophy.’
‘You need to major in something that will make money.’
Cost Will Make the Decision for Us
Common, and perhaps the worst advice, that I have heard a parent offer to their student was ‘You will make your college decision based solely on cost.’ This often backfires. If a student attends the college that costs the least and does not like it, they won’t stay there and transferring is problematic.
I advise students (with the assistance of their parents) to choose the college where they will be happy and try to figure out how to pay for it. If the student is happy they will be successful and the student’s success will make the parents happy and all will feel good about the money they spend or borrow. If the student has a great experience and is well prepared for their profession, it will have been a good investment.
Just Get the Diploma
[Bad advice from parents that I have heard includes:]
‘Going to college is about getting that piece of paper; it doesn’t really matter where you attend.’
Early Decision Means Insufficient Financial Aid
‘Don’t apply early decision because we need financial aid.’ [This is bad advice because] most selective colleges will award financial aid in Early Decision based on estimates of your current year income. The federal aid will be estimated, but if the estimated income is close to actual, the award should be accurate. Also, colleges don’t run out of money in ED, so in many cases, students have a better chance of getting the funds they need in ED. Colleges do not want to lose ED students over insufficient financial aid.
‘Apply to these schools because of the low tuition as financial aid safety schools.’ This is bad advice. Do not ask your child to apply to a school he or she does not want to attend.
‘Visit only after your acceptance.’ Recognizing that school visits can be expensive, this may seem a reasonable idea, but it helps a lot to get to know people on campus and to engage with them over time – relationships are best established in person. Early visits can exclude a college from the applicant set or catapult it into the number one slot, so it is important. It also allows the student to get a sense of fit. Finally, a visit indicates interest and, all things being equal, a visit shows interest and interest can be a factor in a selective admissions pool.
No Time to Explore
‘Go with the cheapest option.’
‘You have to decide on a major now, don’t take time to explore.’
‘Discouraging the pursuit of a major that doesn’t seem as lucrative, current, or useful…i.e. Philosophy, English, Music, History.’
Alumni Know Best
‘You will not be majoring in English (or History, or Art), there are no jobs in those fields.’
‘I went to XYZ school and it worked for me, it should work for you.’
‘The classroom experience is all that matters, not living in a dorm or hanging out on weekends.’
[Here is an excerpt from an] actual conversation with a parent when I was a high school Guidance Counselor:
Me: ‘I think there is a good mix of schools on your daughter’s list.’
Parent: ‘She will be applying to every Ivy, it will help her chances to get into at least one of them.’
Bumper Sticker Envy
‘Go the the most prestigious college you can get into – we want that bumper sticker for the back window of the Volvo.’
Focus on a High Paying Major
The most frustrating piece of advice I hear parents give their students is to choose both a college and a major based on what the parents believe will lead to a good paying job. In fact, a student’s major often has very little to do with what they may end up doing professionally after college. And, of course, as we all know, most students will change majors over the course of a college career.
The most important factor in choice of college and major should be the passion the student feels for either. A passionate English major will do far better than an uninterested computer science major. There are a myriad of good colleges and the ‘right’ fit means much more than thinking about a major.
So, what’s the worst advice you’ve heard? Leave a comment below.