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Am I Applying to the Wrong Colleges?

Am I Applying to the Wrong Colleges?

Are you applying to wrong schools for the wrong reasons? It happens all the time. A third of students at four-year colleges and universities transfer. When deciding where to apply, here are nine things you should avoid so you won’t attend the wrong school.

1. Don’t apply because it’s easy.

Many colleges and universities make it incredibly easy to apply. More than 700 colleges and universities now use the Common Application that makes it possible to apply to many institutions with just one application.

College and university administrators have done this, at least in part, because they are failing to meet their enrollment goals. In a new Gallup survey of admissions directors, 47% of administrators at public universities and 56% at private institutions were “very concerned” about meeting enrollment goals.

Administrators hope that if it takes little effort to apply, more teenagers will be enticed to do so. But, this can backfire because the ever-increasing average number of applications reduces the likelihood that an admitted student will enroll.

2. Don’t apply just because it’s free.

To encourage more applicants, some schools are dropping application fees. You can find these with a quick Internet search. But it's not just obscure institutions using this carrot stick. A 30-second search revealed that institutions such as University of Chicago, Oberlin College, Wellesley College and Tulane University are offering free applications.

Simply applying because it’s free is not a good use of your time and doing so can lead to an inappropriate list. Apply because it is right for you, not because you can avoid paying an application fee. After all, you’ll still have to pay to send your score reports to the no-fee options.

3. Don’t apply because of athletic success stories.

Don’t let an athletic record influence your decision. Students often say that strong school spirit is an important factor in where they apply.

Teenagers also will flock to underdogs that perform better than expected in March Madness. According to an analysis by Bloomberg, campuses that upset teams seeded at least 10 spots ahead of their own rank experienced a 7% median boost in applications.

When Wichita State University made it to the Final Four in 2013, applications jumped by 29%. After Florida Gulf Coast University made it to the Sweet Sixteen round that same year, its applications soared by 27.5%.

It seems obvious that athletics shouldn’t be a factor in selection, but if you need more persuading, research by economists at the University of Oregon could do the trick. According to the study, male students are more likely to drink and party at the expense of studying during fall semesters when their football team has a winning record.

4. Don’t get pressured into applying.  

School counselors, especially those from highly competitive high schools, can possess their own motivations for pushing top schools. They might be evaluated based on their admissions results. Some private schools brag about the number of students that are accepted by Ivy League institutions and other elite universities because it can help with their own recruitment.

Some high school counselors get little or no training in undergraduate planning. When working at public high schools, these counselors typically must earn a master’s degree in school counseling, but these programs rarely include even one course on undergraduate admissions and financial aid.

5. Don’t apply to rack up scholarships.

In the category of “we hope this doesn’t become a trend,” some high school counselors in the Memphis metropolitan area urged students to apply to dozens, some to 100 or more. Counselors have turned what is a time-consuming process under normal circumstance into a game to see how many scholarships seniors can capture.

Some of the students, who applied to a crazy number, bragged that they earned $1 million or more in grants and scholarships. Of course, these “million dollar scholars” capture only a tiny fraction of this money since they can enroll in only one.

6. Don’t apply based on rankings.

A popular shortcut for picking schools is U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the best. You should resist, however, the temptation to take your application cues from the rankings. U.S. News relies heavily on popularity and institutional wealth.

The top-ranked schools tend to be among the most selective, so your odds of getting in are low. Rather than play the admissions lottery, consider applying to those that are a good match, regardless of where they appear in rankings.

7. Don’t apply without checking out departments.

12 years ago, researchers published a study on quality and differences. They produced an 800-page book, which decided there aren’t many differences among colleges and universities.

The real differences, however, exist at the departmental level and within the classrooms of individual professors. If you know what your major will be, don’t apply without checking out the appropriate department.

8. Don’t apply out of fear.

Media hype has stoked fear among teenagers who worry that rejection rates are at an all-time high. This prompted some anxious freshmen and transfer students to apply to too many.

In reality, most students get into their first choice. For instance, a survey of institutions by the National Association for College Admission Counseling suggests that two-thirds of freshmen receive acceptance letters from four-year schools. More than 94% of freshmen say they are enrolled at one of their top three choices.

9. Don't apply to just nearby schools.

According to the UCLA survey of American freshmen nationwide, 38% of students attend school within 50 miles from their home. Just 17% end up more than 500 miles away.

Costs can explain why many students attend state universities near their homes. But schools that are farther away can sometimes be the most reasonably priced after financial aid and/or merit scholarships are deducted.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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