Most College Admissions Advice is Wrong. Here’s What Your Child Should Do Instead.

Matt Larriva
Jul 28, 2023
Home » Most College Admissions Advice is Wrong. Here’s What Your Child Should Do Instead.

Powerful Prep warmly welcomes this guest-article written by Shirag Shemmassian, Ph.D, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting

It’s no secret that most college counselors don’t provide the level of support and attention you expected for your high schooler.

It’s not that college counselors are bad people or don’t care. It’s actually quite the opposite. Most counselors I speak with tell me they desperately want to help more; they simply don’t have the time.

We can all sympathize with not having the time to do what we want, whether serving more clients, spending more time with our spouse, kids, and friends, or going on more hikes and traveling.

However, just because our counselors are overwhelmed with the hundreds of items on their to-do lists doesn’t mean you should expect to receive lower-quality college admissions advice to help your child get into their dream schools.

The Same Canned College Admissions Advice

When I was in high school between 2000-2004, I kept hearing the same canned advice about what I should be doing to get into my dream college. I heard things like:

  • “Enroll in every Advanced Placement (AP) course your school offers.”
  • “Join as many clubs and teams as you can, and try to be president or captain.”
  • “Take the SAT and ACT and see which one you do better on.”
  • “Do 200+ hours of community service.”
  • And so on.

Over a decade later, I continue to hear this advice.

I’m here to tell you that much of the conventional advice we hear about college admissions is wrong.

Unfortunately, this “bad advice” keeps thousands of great students out of their dream colleges each year.

My goal is to give you the right pieces of college admissions advice, the ones I had to learn on my own to graduate from Cornell University. I’ve also used these insights to successfully guide hundreds of other families through the college admissions process.

But rather than provide a bunch of tips, I’m going to list four of the most problematic pieces of canned advice, describe why they’re no good, and advise you on what your child should do instead to stand out and get in.

Canned Advice #1: Your child should enroll in every AP course their school offers

college student throwing college applications in air

The rationale: Colleges want to see students challenge themselves academically and take advantage of the educational opportunities afforded them. If your child enrolls in fewer AP courses than their peers, your child will appear to have taken an easier road.

The problem: While your child should indeed challenge themselves academically, colleges want to admit students who additionally challenge themselves through extracurricular activities and demonstrate growth and leadership throughout their high school years.

By focusing too much on academics, your child will likely not have the time to develop a unique extracurricular profile, which most differentiates the star applicants from those who are academically high-achieving, yet average outside of the classroom setting.

What your child should do instead

Your child should challenge themselves with most, but not necessarily all, AP courses their high school offers.

The rationale: Not only will taking on less intense coursework open up time for your child to develop a unique extracurricular profile, but it will allow your child to devote more effort to each advanced course. That way, they can work on getting those “A” grades and passing their AP exams with scores of 3 or above, which matter more than letter grades anyway.

Canned Advice #2: Your child should do whatever it takes to maximize their ACT and SAT scores

The rationale: The competition for admissions to top colleges is fierce, with some schools like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford admitting less than 10% of all applicants. The higher your child’s ACT and SAT scores, therefore, the more likely they will be to get into top colleges.

The problem: as with AP courses, putting too much emphasis on standardized test scores will detract from your child’s ability to stand out in other ways, such as starting an organization or putting together a significant community event.

Get SAT prep off your to-do list: Discover How Top Students Like You Get Killer SAT Scores

columbia university student

What your child should do instead

Your child should study very hard for a semester and take the ACT or SAT,  targeting a score in the range of what their dream colleges typically admit (i.e., between the 25th and 75th percentiles of admitted applicants). For most students this takes between 3 and 6 months. There’s no need to plan to prep for years, nor to overemphasize the PSAT unless your child has a strong chance of qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship.

Optimally, your child should aim to have a score they are happy with by the end of their junior year. This allows students to take advantage of Early Admissions/Early Action/Early Decision programs, which are usually associated with higher acceptance rates.

If that timing is unfeasible, it’s good to remember that many students post their highest test scores on the early Fall tests of their Senior years, after having a summer of prep without the demands of schoolwork. Regardless of timing, remember that SAT or ACT scores are just one component of your child’s application, one which only requires about 3-6 months of hard work.

The rationale: Thousands of students with perfect or near-perfect scores get rejected from top colleges each year. Standardized tests are important, but they’re not even close to being everything.

Also, by having a score they’re happy with by the end of their junior year, your child can focus on making a significant community impact through their extracurricular activities.

Canned Advice #3: Your child should join as many clubs and teams as they can

The rationale: Colleges seek to admit well-rounded students. Joining many clubs and teams will show admissions committees that your child has many interests and talents.

The problem: Colleges want to admit specialists who are collectively well-rounded. In other words, they want students with diverse interests, talents, and abilities who, together, make up a well-rounded student body.

If every student tried to focus on everything, they wouldn’t have enough time to hone their craft and become really good at anything in particular.

Cornell Univesity
Credit: Mandolyn McConaha

What your child should do instead

Your child should focus on developing a particular specialty—in art, music, science, sports, or something else—and aim to be known as “that guy” or “that girl”—“the cubist painter,” “the fitness app programmer”—to stand out on their college applications.

Just like our society relies on people to develop different areas of expertise, colleges want to ensure that various specialties are represented in their student bodies. Encourage your child to pursue something they are particularly interested in for multiple years. And remember, there’s nothing “too silly” or “just a hobby” when it comes to developing a specialty.

Canned Advice #4: Your child should pursue leadership positions in every extracurricular activity they participate in

The rationale: Colleges seek to admit leaders; leadership positions will help demonstrate that.

The problem: Yes, colleges do want to admit leaders. However, simply listing a leadership position on their college application will not help your child stand out as a leader. It’s just not very convincing to admissions committees.

This would be equivalent to saying, “You should hang out with me because I’m really cool” if you’re trying to convince others that you’re cool. The problem is, cool people don’t call themselves “cool”; they just behave that way and let others do the complimenting for them.

What your child should do instead

Your child should make a significant community impact while exhibiting their leadership qualities.

These opportunities are not limited to school clubs or organizations. Oftentimes, your child will have a particular specialty or interest for which there is no pre-existing club at their high school. In those situations, your child could consider starting their own organization or organizing their own event, in or outside of their school.

This is much easier than it sounds. At school, a faculty sponsorship may be required, but not much more. Outside of school, the options are limitless. Your child could seek a community mentor or partner with an existing organization.

mit engineering student and professor working on robot

In addition, your child should focus on making a significant community impact through their organization or cause, with whatever interests or talents they already have. For example, your violinist son could start a music program for inner-city youth, whereas your athletic daughter could donate money raised through a basketball game to combat juvenile diabetes.

These types of activities demonstrate not only leadership, but also initiative and creativity. Moreover, they elevate your child’s “that guy” or “that girl” status to things like “the cellist who taught music in the inner city” or “the basketball player who donated thousands to fight juvenile diabetes.”

Again, let the admissions committees do the complimenting for your child.

Final Thoughts on College Admissions

Successful college admissions doesn’t have to be so mysterious.

Unfortunately, the approaches that help students get into top colleges are underdiscussed or, worse yet, unknown.

By following the advice that separates top applicants from everyone else, your child will be able to focus on what matters to them and to your community, while reducing their stress in the process.


Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is a college admissions expert who has helped hundreds of students get into schools like Princeton, MIT, and Stanford. Click here to learn, for FREE, the top 10 mistakes that keep students out of elite colleges—and what your child can immediately do instead to dramatically increase their chances of acceptance.