Nine Reasons Why You Might Be Applying to the Wrong Colleges

on September 20, 2017

Are you applying to wrong colleges for the wrong reasons?


It happens all the time. A third of students at four-year colleges transfer because they aren’t at a college that’s right for them.


When deciding where to apply, here are nine things you should avoid so you won’t attend the wrong college:


1. Don’t apply because it’s easy.


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


Administrators hope that if it takes little effort to apply, more teenagers will be enticed to do so. But, this can backfire on the colleges 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 colleges are dropping application fees. You can find these colleges with a quick Internet search. 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 of universities. Apply to a college because it is the right college 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 colleges.


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


Don’t let a college’s athletic record influence your decision. Students often say that strong school spirit is an important factor in where they apply. School spirit, however, is often just another way of saying they want to attend a college with a successful Division I football or basketball program.


Teenagers also will flock to collegiate underdogs that perform better than expected in the NCAA basketball tournament a.k.a March Madness. According to an analysis by Bloomberg, universities that upset teams seeded at least 10 spots ahead of their own rank experienced a seven-percent median boost in applications.


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


It seems obvious that athletics shouldn’t be a factor in college 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, in particular, 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.  


If you’re a top student, your high school counselor may pressure you to apply to highly prestigious universities. This doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good idea. The odds will typically be remote and prices can be prohibitive.


School counselors, especially those from highly competitive high schools, can possess their own motivations for pushing top universities. These professionals can be evaluated based on their admission 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.


Here is another reason why high school advisors focus primarily on the shiniest brand name private universities and their own state universities: They might know little about the huge universe of other colleges.


A major reason for this reality is that some high school counselors get little or no training in college planning. When working at public high schools, these counselors typically must earn a master’s degree in school counseling but these programs in hundreds of universities across the country rarely include even one course on college admissions and financial aid.


5. Don’t apply just 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 have been urging students to apply to dozens of colleges. Some apply to 100 or more. Counselors have turned what is a time-consuming process under normal circumstance into a game to see how many scholarships their seniors can capture.


Some of the students, who applied to a crazy number of colleges, 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 college.


6. Don’t apply based on college rankings.


A popular short cut for picking colleges is U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the best colleges. You should resist, however, the temptation to take your application cues from the rankings. U.S. News doesn’t attempt to measure the type of learning taking place at individual colleges and instead relies heavily on popularity and institutional wealth.


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


Nevertheless, the rankings published by U.S. News and other sources such as Forbes, Kiplinger, Money and Washington Monthly, can be beneficial in generating ideas from the ranks of colleges and universities that aren’t well known. And that includes the majority of institutions.


7. Don’t apply without checking out departments.


Twelve years ago, researchers published an exhaustive study on research over the decades on college quality and differences. They produced an 800-page book, which made this conclusion:  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 to a college without checking out the appropriate department.


8. Don’t apply out of fear.


Media hype on college admissions has stoked fear among teenagers who worry that college rejection rates are sky high. This has prompted some anxious freshmen applicants and transfer students to apply to too many colleges.


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


9. Only applying to nearby colleges.


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


Costs can explain why many students attend state universities near their homes. But colleges 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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