For many of our students, getting into a good college is a top priority. They crazily work to get perfect grades, spend years enrolling in test-prep courses, and signing 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 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 guides 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 common 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. 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—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 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.”