Want to win your college search? Here are 10 things you have to know.

Someone on Quora posted the question, “What don’t they tell you about college admissions?”  At the risk of poking the beast, here you go.  If you want to see the original post and the other responses that were posted, click here.  I’m certainly not the only person with something to say about the subject.  Some of the other responses are really smart.

(Watch this TED talk – it will add context to the rest of this post.)

  1. Picking which college to go to is like picking from a whole bunch of different gateways that all enter into single giant new frontier. Although each gateway might start you out with a slightly different perspective on that giant new frontier (one is closer to mountains, one is closer to water, etc), that gateway is only a starting point, and it will mean less and less the further into that new frontier you go. A year into your first job, no one is going to care what college you went to. And ten years into adulthood . . . it will matter even less. It doesn’t mean that college can’t be an important part of one’s life (for good or bad reasons), but just keep it in perspective. The college you get into and attend definitely isn’t a finish line. There is no trophy for admission.
  2. College admissions isn’t fair because it isn’t designed to be fair. Colleges decided what kind of students, with what kind of skills and interests, they want and then they prioritize getting those types of students to apply and enroll that year. So if the school you like the most is graduating all of their orchestra’s bassoon players and they are deciding between a bassoon player and you for a spot in their incoming class, it probably won’t matter if your test score is 10 points higher and you have an awesome list of extra-curriculars . . . they will almost surely take the bassoon player.
  3. Colleges and Universities are far more similar than they are different. They all have a bunch of the same majors and minors. They (almost) always have residence halls (and there is always one that is nicer than the others). They all sell food (that every student gets tired of at some point). They all offer study abroad, internships, student research, co-curricular activities, intramural something, clubs, guest lectures, some movies, game nights, and other fun-ish activities. They all have some awesome faculty and some terrible faculty (and fate will ensure that you end up in both of their classes). And they all have some nice people and some not-so-nice people (and fate will ensure that you have to deal with both of them).
  4. The stuff that schools highlight in their tours and brochures and videos and tweets and Instagram posts and all the other marketing materials might be interesting, cool, or even breath-taking, but most of it won’t matter much at all in terms of your day-to-day experience at that college.
  5. Every bit of well-designed research on the results of college (no matter whether the study looked at student satisfaction, learning gains, or what happens after college like job placement, salary, etc.) has found that success/positive results have far less to do with which college you attend and far more to do with what you do in college. So if a school spends most of their effort showing you lists of all of the cool programs, majors, and extra-curricular stuff they offer. . . great, but not so important. If a school specifically shows you that they know how to help you plug in, stay totally engaged, and put together exactly the right combination of experiences that will ensure that you blossom into something amazing that attracts people and employers (and ESPECIALLY if they can tell you how they know that their approach works) – sit up and pay attention, because that is a school worth considering.
    1. CAVEAT – there aren’t a lot of schools like that, and if/when you find someone like that at a particular school, it may well be a reflection of that individual and not a guarantee that everyone at that school can provide that kind of guidance. Now if you can find two people who independently tell that stuff? That school is definitely worth considering.
  6. For most students’ applications, essays aren’t that important. That doesn’t mean you should just submit a blank piece of paper; it just means that if your grades and test scores are similar to the students that school has historically accepted, then your essay isn’t going to matter that much (unless your essay makes it clear that you will be a danger to yourself or others). So submit something that is authentic and that you are proud of, but don’t sweat it. And don’t try to impress or suck up. It’s true – nobody likes a suck up. Including college admissions counselors. With all the application essays admissions counselors have to read every year, they REALLY hate that.
  7. Flip side – no school has the person-power to check the accuracy of each applicant’s essay. Do with that information what you will, but if you are spending any time imagining how to beat the system, reread point #6. There is an infamous story told by college admissions lore about an essay that described how hard it was to get over mom’s death. The admissions office called to express sympathy and who do you think picked up the phone? Mom. Yeah.
  8. Over half of all colleges and universities failed to make their enrollment goals last year. So for most schools, May 1st doesn’t mean much. And it shouldn’t for you either. When you are ready to decide, decide. If you aren’t, don’t. No matter how much of a pressure sell is embedded in a school’s acceptance letter. In fact, the more sentences in an acceptance letter that gin up your FOMO anxieties (Fear OMissing Out) there are, the more you ought to think twice of enrolling at that school.
  9. With all those schools struggling to enroll enough students, you have power. Negotiate if you need to. Walk away from a financial aid offer if you have to. Colleges need students and tuition to survive. For at least the next decade, unless a whole lot of colleges and universities close up shop there are going to be way more spots at colleges than there are students to fill them. The smart schools understand that they’d rather get you to enroll for a lower price and get your money for the next three years than leave empty beds empty. The admissions system is already stacked against the student and loaded in favor of the colleges. Don’t give up the one bit of power you have.
  10. Major doesn’t matter that much. So unless you’ve wanted to do some very specific profession since you were a kid (because you actually know what what people in that profession actually do as opposed to something you saw on Netflix, and it’s already clear that you have the academic chops to succeed in the courses that make up the major that leads to that profession), know that you can get to most careers from multiple majors and that more than 50% of students either start college undecided or change their major at least once. So picking a college based on what majors they have tends to end up to be a mirage for most people.