We recently published a detailed guide to how to create your college list. By going through that guide and following its steps, you’ll come up with a strong list of schools to apply to covering each of the three basic categories (safety, target, and reach).
What you may not gather from that guide is that there are some bad reasons to choose or apply to specific schools. Here are some of the most common pitfalls to avoid when deciding where to submit your college applications.
Let’s start off with one of the really tough ones. Depending on your family, you may be under a lot of pressure to attend a particular school. After all, you can’t be the one to break the generations-long chain of attending a certain college, right?
Wrong. While respecting your family is (of course!) important, starting your adult life by deciding to go to a school that will make you miserable for at least four years isn’t a healthy way to do that. If your family’s legacy school is one that actually appeals to you, that’s great — don’t avoid applying just to rebel against your family! If not, though, remember that you need to forge your own path, and that starts by choosing a college that works for you, not necessarily one that worked for your parents or grandparents.
(With that said, this isn’t a free pass to ignore your parents. They know you very well and may have some valuable insights or experience that you’d do well to listen to.)
The sorts of loves and friendships you experience in high school may be unlike any others you ever encounter. They might be intense and all-consuming, but that doesn’t mean that they will (or should) last forever.
If you’re one of the lucky few for whom high school friendships or romance blossoms and lasts a lifetime, then those relationships are surely strong enough to endure a few years at different schools. If not — which is often the case — they’ll tend to dissipate regardless of whether you go to the same school. In the likely case that this occurs, you’ll then be stuck at a school that you chose just because your ex or former-friends-turned-acquaintances decided to go there.
There are all sorts of problems with this situation. For one, you’ll need to see these people around campus all the time, and having an ex (in particular) around all the time can be painful and distracting. Being around people with whom you were close, but aren’t any longer, can make it more difficult to form new bonds with other people; you could easily fall into the trap of trying to recapture the past instead of growing toward a better future. Finally, you may find yourself in this situation at a school that doesn’t suit you at all. In short, avoid applying to a school just because that’s where your friends (or boyfriend or girlfriend) might go.
Sure, a school’s rankings tend to have some reflection on how good it is… but don’t apply to a school just because it ranks well! We’ve covered the importance of college rankings in some detail in a previous post, but it’s worth rehashing here.
In short, college rankings may not measure what you value in a school, or indicate that a school is a good fit for you. The fact that a particular college ranks consistently near the tops of lists doesn’t mean that it’s one of the best fits in the country for your personality, learning style, values, and goals.
If a school’s prestige is really one of the most important factors to you, the colleges consistently near the tops of these lists may be worth considering. Short of that, try not to take rankings too much into account in your application decisions, and definitely don’t use them as your guide to where to apply.
This one is on the fence. If you’re absolutely certain you’d only be happy at a very large (or very small) college, then that’s a factor worth considering in your application. But in general, applying to a school just because it’s the size you want isn’t a good idea.
If you have your heart set on going to a small school, keep in mind that many larger schools have a more intimate feel within departments or programs. On the other hand, if you’re enthusiastic about going to a very large school, remember that there’s life beyond campus; a small school in a large city or urban area may give you enough of the vibrancy you need. In other words, don’t let a school’s size alone be the deciding factor in applying there.
Just to See If You’ll Get In
The temptation to apply to schools like Harvard just to see if you get in — even if you have no real intention of going there — is pretty powerful, and lots of us apply to schools like this for exactly that reason. (Guilty here!) With that said, doing so is basically a waste of time and energy that you could be spending on improving applications to schools you actually want to go to.
And think of it this way: if you do get into that prestigious school that you applied to just to see what would happen, you’ll then need to debate all over again about whether to go there. You may even feel pressure to attend because you were lucky enough to be accepted, even if you know in your heart of hearts that it isn’t the best fit for you. Do yourself a favor and limit your applications to schools you would actually want to attend.