Two Biggest Mistakes Families Make in the College Admissions Process

For lots of families of high school juniors and sophomores, this whole college admissions process has just kicked into gear. So, it seems like a good time to talk about the typical mistakes students and parents make as they get started.

1. ASSUMPTIONS – you know the old saying “assume – makes an ass of you (u) and me.” It is very apropos here.

In my experience, students often tend to underestimate their chances thinking that colleges don’t really look at anything besides grades and test scores and assume they don’t have a chance at schools where they really are competitive.  On the flip side, are parents who have only seen how hard their child has worked, how much they’ve contributed to their school or community and can’t imagine that top tier schools like Stanford could possibly say “no” to their prodigy student. So, of course reality is somewhere in the middle.

If you’ve ever done a campus visit, the one thing I assure you’ll hear is that each college evaluates its applicants “holistically”  – that means that the decisions are based on more than just stats (grades and test scores). Most colleges, particularly the privates, are interested in understanding who each applicant is, what makes them tick and finding out how they’ll contribute to life on their specific college campus.

So don’t ASSUME you won’t be accepted because your test scores aren’t strong enough. Every  year I have an interesting student or two whose test scores and perhaps even their grades don’t match up the “average” student profile at a college. But, they choose to do their research on the college or university, hopefully visit, make a connection with someone in the Admissions Office, put together an impressive resume that details their accomplishments, get great letters of recommendation and write a strong essay. And, every year a few of those students are wowed by their offers of acceptance.

Parents are often unaware and ASSUME that their stellar student will be welcomed with open arms everywhere because their kids performed so much better than they did in high school. It’s tougher out there, no question. At the most elite schools, they are rejecting valedictorians with perfect test scores if they didn’t spend their time doing anything else. To be truthful, there are a lot of those types of students. Colleges are looking to “build a class” – they are seeking interesting individuals who will add to the richness of the college community and have an impact. What students have done in high school is the best indicator of what they’ll do in college. So the student who non-stopped studied and did nothing else is not looked upon as favorably.


Whether it’s your niece’s boyfriend’s brother who “loved” a school or your next door neighbor who transferred because they were miserable, they aren’t you.

All the more reason students need to conduct their own research, check out course catalogs, read student reviews, watch videos, take virtual tours, etc. I am not a fan of rankings either. So if a school is ranked number 4 in the country for biomedical engineering and you go, but you’re not able to perform at the top of the class, you’re likely to have fewer job opportunities than someone who chose a “lower-ranked” school and performed well.

Don’t listen to the “cocktail party” conversations either. Once families have gone through the process once, many think they are now experts and are delighted to share their “wisdom,” don’t listen! The rumble you were accustomed to hearing when you used to sit in the stands at high school games, is typically not worth much. I’ve received calls this spring from families saying “they have heard” that all schools are now test optional so noone needs to take the SATs or the ACTs. Not true.

Keep perspective on who you talk to. Don’t overshare about your own plans either.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;